Research and Funding

Report details value of information on subjective well-being

December 5, 2013


A new report sponsored by the National Institute on Aging at NIH and the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council and produced by the National Research Council, suggested that national surveys might begin to seek information on “experienced” well-being – the self-reported levels of contentment, stress, frustration, and other feelings people experience throughout the day and while performing different activities. These could be tested on a pilot or experimental basis on surveys, to start, to resolve methodological issues in the approach. The report, “Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience,” was issued December 4, 2013, by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The report emphasized the importance of gathering survey data on the particular measure of experienced well-being, which includes feeling happy and secure, as well as misery and suffering. Such data would be useful in informing specific actions and policy decisions intended to improve the living and working conditions of different population groups, including children or older adults, and could help in developing specific policies and practices relating to end-of-life care, commuting, child custody laws, city planning, patients undergoing medical treatment, among others.

Interest in measuring subjective well-being has grown in recent years, as some researchers have begun to question whether traditional economic measures, such as gross domestic product, can adequately reflect the quality of life of a population or country. This report focuses on experienced, or subjective, well-being, but notes that well-informed policy decisions must also consider evaluative and eudaimonic aspects of self-reported well-being. Evaluative well-beingreflects a person’s assessment of his or her overall life satisfaction, while eudaimonic well-being refers to a person’s perceptions of purpose, and the meaningfulness (or pointlessness) of the activities they are engaged in.

Collecting data on experienced well-being has already begun in some studies of the health and quality of life of older populations in the United States and in other countries. Such measures have already been included in the NIA’s Health and Retirement Study and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. The report identified other government surveys – such as the American Housing Survey and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics – that could include questions about experienced well-being. The report stated that questions have also been included on a pilot basis in the broader population surveys of the U.S. statistical agencies, as they have been in the United Kingdom.

“Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience,” is available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18548.
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