Subjective accounts

It is difficult to measure some constructs objectively (e.g. self-esteem). This problem provides a role for some form of subjective assessment of well-being. However, to respond to the criticism that single-item measures such as life satisfaction are too simplistic and difficult to interpret in terms of policy, such subjective measures must be, like the objective accounts, multi-dimensional. This means that they do not claim a single number can define all of well-being. An individual, or country, can have high well-being with respect to one dimension, but low with respect to another. These different dimensions must be related to different policies in different ways.

An early example of this approach is the psychological well-being scale of Carol Ryff & Corey Keyes.1 This scale claims to measure six aspects of human well-being: autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, life purpose, mastery and positive relatedness. Other examples include the Dumfries & Galloway Wellbeing scale,2 the Psychological Needs Scale3 and the European Quality of Life Survey.4

These approaches all offer richer information on the state of well-being of an individual or population group. Rather than just telling you an individual is dissatisfied, they will tell you why (e.g. they do not have opportunities to grow, or they feel lonely). Whilst this often does not directly link to policy, often it indicates areas where government might help. For example, if people do not have opportunities to develop their capacities, then perhaps the government should support lifelong learning programmes, if people feel stressed, perhaps the government should look at working hours.

The specificity of questions, reduces the risk of response biases. For example a pessimistic individual asked about their overall life satisfaction has the opportunity to focus on those aspects of their life that are less optimal. If they are asked about something specific, then they have less opportunity to do so. For example, ‘do they find the time they spend with their family enjoyable’.

Also, one should hope for higher sensitivity. Responding to a question on a 0-10 scale, there are only 11 possible answers available. Responding to 10 questions on such a scale, there are 101 possible totals, and 110 billion different permutations.

Lastly, the problem with expectations is one that is particularly important to questions like the life satisfaction question. For example, asking someone how often they feel tired, is less likely to be determined by their expectations. By including a range of different types of questions, including some which are more behavioural, or descriptive (in the sense that they are less about rating feelings, and more about counting something such as instances), we can feel more confident that such measures would be sensitive to changes in conditions that one would expect to impact on well-being.

The third round of the ESS provides the biggest ever range of questions with which well-being has been operationalised, over such a large sample. As well as the Well-Being module (module E in the survey), there are also several other relevant questions in the core survey. The following chapters present one way of using this data, based on the report by nef (the new economics foundation), National Accounts of Well-Being (published January 2009).

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