Feature

Data about "experienced well-being" — the levels of contentment, joy, stress, frustration, sadness and other feelings that people report experiencing throughout the day — could help shape policy discussions around end-of-life care, commuting, child-custody laws and city planning, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

Interest in measuring subjective well-being has grown in recent years, as some researchers and politicians have begun to question the ability of the gross domestic product (GDP) and other traditional economic measures to reflect the true quality of life of a population or country, says Richard Suzman, PhD.

"Economic measures don't always reveal the whole story," says Suzman, director of the Behavioral and Social Research Division at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which funded the study along with the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council. "If you have a disaster such as a tornado, tsunami or an earthquake, often GDP goes up because of all the reconstruction efforts, but that doesn't in any way give you a sense of human welfare and well-being."

Instead, the report concludes, well-informed policies must also consider self-reports of "experienced well-being," "evaluative well-being," or overall life satisfaction, and "eudaimonic well-being" — what brings meaning to people.

"They're related concepts but not exactly the same," says Arthur Stone, PhD, chair of the report's panel and a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. "In terms of their impact, life evaluation measures of subjective well-being have a lot to do with the decisions people make, whereas experienced subjective well-being measures have more to do with our physiology and health."

Which aspects of subjective well-being are most important to measure depends on the policy question being addressed, said the panel, which is made up of 12 international economists and behavioral scientists, including six psychologists. For example, in studies of patient outcomes associated with medical treatment, moment-to-moment measures of emotions and sensations such as pain, cold or fear may be especially relevant. Using methods that capture details on activities and time use — what activities respondents are engaged in when they feel a certain way — can give policymakers more insight into people's resistance to or ability to recover from illness, for use in end-of-life care policies, for example.

Researchers in the United States and several other countries have already begun to gather data on experienced well-being, including in the NIA's Health and Retirement Study and the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey. Subjective well-being questions are also appearing in population surveys in the United States and the United Kingdom.

As this work continues, says Stone, it may help bridge the divide between economists and behavioral scientists and affect national policies.

"Gradually, there's been a shift, and the work that psychologists, neuroscientists and other behavioral scientists are doing is starting to make subjective measures much more approachable for the economists," he says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Read the National Research Council report "Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience."