How are we doing? Researchers aim to measure national well-being
A new research tool developed by an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and economists could help social scientists more accurately evaluate how well individuals and society are faring. The method offers a new way to characterize the daily life experience of individuals, aimed at providing a measure that could be used in assessing social interventions, including clinical trials. Its developers are working on a way to use the method in calculating a "National Well-Being Account," to provide a broad measure of the well-being of people of all ages, akin to the economic measure Gross Domestic Product.
The tool, called the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), assesses how people spend their time and how they feel about, or experience, activities throughout a given day. In a trial of the new technique, a group of women rated the psychological and social aspects of a number of daily activities. Among these women, relaxing with friends was one of the most enjoyable activities, and the least enjoyable was commuting.
DRM is described by Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and colleagues in the December 3, 2004, issue of Science. Dr. Kahneman was joined in this study by his Princeton University colleague, economist Alan B. Krueger, and psychologists David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, and Arthur A. Stone of Stony Brook University.
"Current measures of well-being and quality of life need to be significantly improved," says Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., Associate Director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which in part funded the research. "In the future I predict that this approach will become an essential part of national surveys seeking to assess the quality of life. The construction of a National Well-Being Account that supplements the measure of GNP with a measure of aggregate happiness is a revolutionary idea." The NIA is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the DRM, participants revive memories of the previous day by writing a short diary. They are told to think of their day as a series of scenes or episodes in a film. Next, they answer a series of questions about each episode, including where they were, what they were doing, whom they were with, and how they felt during the episode. The goal is to provide researchers with an accurate picture of the moment-to-moment experiences associated with daily activities.
In a test of DRM, involving 909 employed women, Dr. Kahneman and his colleagues validated this new approach by comparing the results to findings obtained using the experience sampling method, in which people are prompted at random moments throughout the day to record what they are currently doing and how they are feeling. The women who participated in the DRM, for instance, reported the same pattern of tiredness as participants in an experience sampling study: decreasing tiredness throughout the morning, followed by increasing weariness after noon, and peaking at the end of the work day. Experience sampling is considered the gold standard for assessing the details of individuals' feelings, but the DRM approach is considerably less expensive and more efficient.
The researchers used the ratings of different activities by DRM participants to define an "enjoyment" scale. On the high end of the scale was relaxing with friends, followed by lunch with co-workers, watching TV alone, shopping with a spouse, and cooking alone. Being with one’s boss and commuting alone anchored the low end of the enjoyment scale. The scale was then used to characterize the effects of a variety of circumstances. For example, sleep quality had a large effect on the enjoyment of life. Women who slept poorly, on average, enjoyed their day as little as a typical person enjoys commuting. In contrast, those who usually slept well enjoyed their day as much as most people enjoy watching television, the third most pleasant activity. The effects of time pressure on the enjoyment of work were also very large.
"Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or particular populations within it are doing," Dr. Kahneman says. "A measure of how different categories of people spend their time and of how they experience their activities could provide a useful indication of the well-being of society. The DRM can serve this purpose, and it is likely to be useful for medical researchers, epidemiologists, economists, and others." Dr. Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his work integrating psychological research into economic science.
The NIA recently awarded the team that developed the DRM a grant as an Edward R. Roybal Center for Research on Applied Gerontology, to pursue further study of measures of well-being. The initial development of the DRM was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, the National Science Foundation, and by the NIA.
The NIA is one of 27 Institutes and Centers at the NIH. It leads the Federal Government effort conducting and supporting research on the biomedical and social and behavioral aspects of aging and the problems of older people. For more information on aging-related research and the NIA, please visit the NIA website at www.nia.nih.gov. The public may also call for publications describing these efforts and offering health information for older people and their families at 1-800-222-2225, the toll-free number for the National Institute on Aging Information Center.