Methodological considerations in the measurement of subjective well-being



The goal of the present chapter is to outline the available evidence on how survey methodology can affect subjective well-being measures and draw together what is currently known about good practice. The chapter focuses on aspects of survey design and methodology and is organised around five main themes: i) question construction; ii) response formats; iii) question context; iv) survey mode effects and wider survey context effects; and v) response styles and the cultural context in which a survey takes place. Each section is structured around the key measurement issues raised, the evidence regarding their impact, and the implications this has for survey methodology.

Much like any other survey-based measure, it is clear that subjective well-being data can be affected by the measurement methods adopted. Maximising data quality by minimising the risk of bias is a priority for survey design. Comparability of data between different survey administrations is another essential consideration. In support of data comparability, this chapter argues in favour of adopting a consistent or standardised measurement approach across survey instruments, study waves, and countries wherever possible, thus limiting the additional variance potentially introduced by differing methodologies.

Perhaps because of concerns about their use, quite a lot is known about how subjective well-being measures behave under different measurement conditions - in some cases more so than many self-report measures already included in some national surveys. The extensive manner in which subjective well-being questions have been tested offers a firm evidence base for those seeking to better understand their strengths and limitations. However, some questions remain regarding the “optimal” way to measure subjective well-being. National statistical agencies are in a unique position to further improve the evidence base, by answering some of the questions for which large and more nationally-representative samples are required.

The present chapter is framed in terms of the potential for measurement error in subjective well-being data. All measures suffer from error, even the most objective measures used in “hard” sciences. But as argued by Diener, Inglehart and Tay (2012): “We cannot... automatically dismiss findings or fields because of measurement error because science would halt if we did so”. Given that some degree of measurement error is inevitable, the goal then is to guide the selection of measures that are good enough to enable meaningful patterns to be distinguished from noise in the data. The patterns of greatest interest to policy-makers are likely to include both meaningful changes in subjective well-being over time, and meaningful differences between population subgroups, as well as better understanding the determinants of subjective well-being. These analyses are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4 (Output and analysis of subjective well-being measures) of the guidelines.

In terms of coverage, this chapter considers only the three types of subjective well-being measures set out in Chapter 1: evaluative measures regarding life overall; affective measures capturing recent experiences of feelings and emotions; and eudaimonic

measures. These measures have different properties and, in some cases, show different relationships with determinants (Clark and Senik, 2011; Huppert and So, 2009; Diener et al., 2009; Schimmack, Schupp and Wagner, 2008). By their natures, these measures may also place differing demands on respondents, and may thus vary in their susceptibility to different sources of bias and error.

Wherever possible, this chapter considers general principles of good survey design that will be relevant to all three of these measures of subjective well-being; where issues are of particular concern to one type of measure, this will be highlighted. Where specific evidence on subjective well-being is lacking, the chapter draws on some examples from other literatures (such as those examining attitudes, or subjective perceptions of more objective phenomena such as health). However, it must be emphasised that the scope of these guidelines is firmly focused on measures of subjective well-being only, rather than on all possible subjective and/or self-report measures commonly used across a variety of surveys.

The remaining part of this introduction discusses the question-answering process, and the various types of errors or biases that can arise in the course of this process. The sections that follow are then organised according to the various features of survey design that can potentially influence the likelihood of errors or biases. It begins by considering the most narrow design features (question construction and response formats), before broadening out the discussion to question context, placement and ordering. Broader still are mode effects, and other issues arising from the wider survey method, such as the day of the week and the time of year that the survey is conducted. The final section of the chapter then deals with response styles (see below) and the cultural context in which a survey takes place - and what that might mean for data comparability, particularly across different countries.

In practice, of course, many of these survey design elements are contingent upon one another - so for example, survey mode influences the question wording and response formats that can be most easily used and understood by respondents. The risks associated with response styles and the wider cultural context in which surveys are conducted can also potentially have implications across most of the other survey design features. Some of these cross-cutting issues and trade-offs are highlighted in Table 2.1. Chapter 3 (an approach to Measuring subjective well-being) describes managing the practical trade-offs involved in survey design in more detail, providing advice on issues such as translation and proposing a set of question modules.

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