Conceptual framework

In measurement, it is important to be clear about the nature and scope of the concept being measured. This is particularly the case for a topic such as subjective well-being where the precise concept being measured is less immediately obvious than is the case for a more straight-forward concept such as income, consumption, age or gender. The validity of a statistical measure - as will be discussed in the following sections of this chapter - can be understood as the degree to which the statistical measure in question captures the underlying concept that it is intended to measure. A clear conceptual framework for subjective well-being is therefore essential before it is possible to discuss validity in any meaningful sense.

The first element of a conceptual framework for the measurement of subjective well-being is to define exactly what is meant by subjective well-being. This is important because there are potentially a wide range of subjective phenomena on which people could report, not all of which would necessarily fall under the heading of “well-being”. It is also important to define subjective well-being in order to be able to communicate clearly what is being measured. Often, the measurement of subjective well-being is conflated with measuring “happiness”; however, this is both technically incorrect (there is more to subjective well-being than happiness) and misleading, and thus lends support to sceptics who characterise the measurement of subjective well-being in general as little more than “happiology”.1

Most experts characterise subjective well-being as covering a number of different aspects of a person’s subjective state (Diener et al., 1999; Kahneman, Diener and Schwarz, 1999). However, there is room for some debate about exactly what elements should be included. For example, some analysts, such as Kahneman and Krueger (2006), focus primarily on the hedonic aspect of subjective experience, while others, such as Huppert et al. (2009), opt for a definition that includes measures of good psychological functioning as well as purpose in life. For the purposes of these guidelines, a relatively broad definition of subjective well-being is used. In particular, subjective well-being is taken to be:2

Good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people

make of their lives, and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.

This definition is intended to be inclusive in nature, encompassing the full range of different aspects of subjective well-being commonly identified. In particular, the reference to good mental functioning should be considered as including concepts such as interest, engagement and meaning, as well as satisfaction and affective states. Thus, in the terms of Diener (2006), “subjective well-being is an umbrella term for the different valuations people make regarding their lives, the events happening to them, their bodies and minds, and the circumstances in which they live”. Such valuations are subjective, in that they are experienced internally (i.e. they are not assessments of some external phenomenon); they constitute aspects of well-being in that they relate to the pleasantness and desirability or otherwise of particular states and aspects of people’s lives.

While the definition of subjective well-being used here is broad and potentially reflects the influence of a wide range of people’s attributes and circumstances, it does not imply that subjective well-being is proposed as the single all-encompassing measure of people’s well-being, with all other aspects having only instrumental value in achieving this. On the contrary, this definition is explicitly consistent with approaches that conceive of people’s well-being as a collection of different aspects, each of them having intrinsic value. In measuring overall human well-being then, subjective well-being should be placed alongside measures of non-subjective outcomes, such as income, health, knowledge and skills, safety, environmental quality and social connections.

The definition of subjective well-being outlined above is relatively broad, and could give the impression that subjective well-being is a hopelessly vague concept. This is not the case. There is, in fact, general agreement among experts on the specific aspects that comprise subjective well-being (Dolan and White, 2007; Sen, Stiglitz and Fitoussi, 2009; ONS, 2011). In particular, a distinction is commonly made between life evaluations, which involve a cognitive evaluation of the respondent’s life as a whole (or aspects of it), and measures of affect, which capture the feelings experienced by the respondent at a particular point in time (Diener, 1984; Kahneman et al., 1999). In addition to the distinction between evaluation and affect, a number of researchers argue that there is also a clear eudaimonic aspect of subjective well-being, reflecting people’s sense of purpose and engagement (Huppert et al., 2009). The framework used here covers all three concepts of well-being:

  • • Life evaluation.
  • • Affect.
  • • Eudaimonia (psychological “flourishing”).
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