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Spring 2014 Vol. 13 Number 2

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How Are You, REALLY?

Measuring Well-Being to Inform Policy


Interest in measuring how people feel about their experiences and how satisfied they are with their lives has grown in recent years among policymakers, researchers, the media, and the general public. This stems from concerns that traditional economic measures, such as gross domestic product, do not on their own reflect a population's or country's quality of life adequately.

The National Institute on Aging and the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council asked the National Research Council to assess whether measuring "experienced well-being" -- moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, and day-to-day feelings of pleasure, contentment, anxiety, pain, etc. -- has value for informing policy.

The resulting report says that well-informed policy decisions need to consider the "evaluative" and "eudaimonic" aspects of self-reported well-being. Evaluative well-being reflects a person's assessment of his or her overall life satisfaction. Eudaimonic well-being refers to a person's perceptions of purpose and the meaningfulness (or pointlessness) of the activities he or she is engaged in, and of life overall. An activity can rate highly in one area and low in another. For example, time spent caring for children is typically reported as being more meaningful than pleasurable, while the opposite is true for other activities, such as watching television.

Which aspects of subjective well-being are most relevant and important to measure depend on the specific policy matter to be addressed, the report says. Many targeted questions that concern governments and private organizations focus on improving quality of life and reducing daily suffering for various groups, such as aging populations, people with chronic health conditions, or children in child care or custody arrangements. Data revealing relationships between self-reports of well-being and particular aspects of life -- for example, accessibility to child care and commuting patterns -- could be useful for informing employer policy decisions intended to improve workers' well-being.

Because some methodological issues still need to be resolved, such as how responses to questions are influenced by the context or order in which they are asked, questions that gauge experienced well-being should initially only be included in flagship surveys of federal statistical agencies on a pilot basis, the report says. Whatever the collection vehicle, data on experienced well-being must reflect multiple dimensions to be useful in policymaking. Specifically, both positive and negative emotions, as well as concepts of purposefulness and worthwhileness alongside feelings like pleasure and pain, are important dimensions to include.

-- Dana Korsen & Sara Frueh

Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience. Panel on Measuring Subjective Well-Being in a Policy-Relevant Framework, Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2013, 204 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-29446-1; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study committee was chaired by Arthur A. Stone, senior behavioral scientist and professor of psychology, Center for Economic and Social Research, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council.

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