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Key Concepts and Methods

Subjective Wellbeing

In some ways, the simplest notion is ‘subjective wellbeing’, or SWB. This is a means of measuring how happy people are in and with their lives. Amongst psychologists, SWB is typically conceptualised as a composite of life satisfaction, derived through ‘cognitive’ thought or reflective processes and ‘affect balance’ which refers to emotions or feelings. It is proposed that affect needs to be measured along two dimensions (positive and negative) as the presence of negative emotions is not equivalent simply to the absence of positive ones (Keyes 2005).

In economics, SWB tends to be conceptualised simply as life satisfaction. Many more recent analyses (e.g. Diener et al. 2010) lead to questioning whether life satisfaction and asset balance should be considered together, since they behave rather differently in statistical tests. Life satisfaction tends to correlate with people’s economic standard of living, affect balance with their social and PWB (Graham 2012).

Life satisfaction measures tend to be quite simple. Especially in economic surveys, a single item may be used as an indicator of ‘global happiness’. The Gallup World Poll, which is probably the most widely used source of international data on wellbeing, employs just two items to gauge present and anticipated future life evaluations, leading to classification of respondents as ‘suffering’, ‘struggling’, or ‘thriving’ (Gallup, n.d.). Diener’s widely used ‘Satisfaction with Life Scale’ (Diener et al. 1985) has five items. An alternative approach is to measure satisfaction across various life domains. The Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI) thus asks people to rate their satisfaction with their standard of living, personal health, achieving in life, personal relationships, personal safety, community-connectedness, future security, and spirituality- religion (International Wellbeing Group 2013)

Measures of affect are much more diverse. These aim to rate the frequency with which people experience ‘positive’ versus ‘negative’ emotions.1 This might involve self-assessment against a standard list (e.g. the PANAS scale, Watson [1]

et al. 1988). Alternatively, respondents might be asked to recollect emotional experiences which are then categorised as positive or negative, by either themselves or others. Although at one level there is acceptance that this is subjective data on which the respondent must be the ultimate authority, there is a lingering unease with this amongst these scholars, who are predominantly positivist in orientation. ‘Experience-sampling’ thus aims to collect immediate ratings of emotions as they are experienced—respondents are buzzed or otherwise prompted to record what they are feeling right at that moment (e.g. Larson and Csikszentmihalyi 1983) to avoid the deviations of memory. Researchers sometimes recommend triangulating subjective accounts with ‘objective correlates’, such as recording how often people smile (Nettle 2005). Ultimately, the aspiration towards ‘science’ may lead towards by-passing altogether the need to engage with the subject who thinks and feels to express him or herself as brain imaging technologies provide ‘objective’ means to assess happiness (e.g. Berridge and Kringelbach 2011).

The attraction of SWB is the extent to which it is parsimonious: it provides a one-off assessment of people’s subjective success in life. For economists and the policy community, it is seen to provide a direct, quantifiable measure of utility—instead of having to rely on income or consumption as a proxy measure of wellbeing; it is claimed, it is now possible to assess people’s happiness directly. Moreover, its advocates claim that it is culture-free, since people make their own judgements by their own criteria—there is no attempt to state what happiness means, but simply ‘how happy’ people are. This means, it is claimed, that SWB can be used to compare the net effect in terms of increased happiness across very different interventions, or indeed government policy as a whole. The OECD (2013, p. 36) gives an example of this position:

being grounded in peoples’ [sic] experiences and judgements on multiple aspects of their life [sic], measures of subjective well-being are uniquely placed to provide information on the net impact of changes in social and economic conditions on the perceived wellbeing of respondents.

In practice, there are serious doubts as to whether SWB can indeed deliver the benefits to policy that are claimed for it. Even if you set aside the considerable difficulty of representing your life through a single figure, people tend to experience such questions as asking them to rate themselves—a very sensitive issue. ‘Social desirability bias’ means that people respond with how they would like to be perceived, rather than what they are actually feeling. SWB measures have also shown themselves to be very sensitive to the instruments which generate the data. For example, Deaton’s (2012) assessment of SWB amongst Americans during the economic crisis finds that a large proportion of the variability of scores from year to year is accounted for by changes in the order in which questions were asked. Frey and Gallus (2013) also point out that if SWB is adopted as an indicator of governmental success, it will become subject to political manipulation—by both government and voters. Finally, of course, the ‘emptiness’ of SWB means that the link between a policy or other event and a rise or fall in scores is by no means transparent.

  • [1] Whether it is useful to characterise emotions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ is itself open to debate, of course.
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