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What makes people happy?

New tool seeks to measure gross domestic well-being

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- A new research method that quantifies people’s quality of life — beyond how much money they make — could lead to a national index of well-being, similar to key measures of economic health.

The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), developed by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger along with colleagues from three universities, creates an “enjoyment scale” by requiring people to record the previous day’s activities in a short diary form and describe their feelings about the experiences. The technique is potentially more effective than current methods of measuring the well-being of individuals and of society, the researchers said in the Dec. 3 issue of Science.

The new tool will be used in an effort to calculate a “national well-being account,” a measure similar to economic gauges such as the gross national product. The research team is working with the Gallup Organization to pilot a national telephone survey using the new method.

“Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or particular populations within it are doing. 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.”
—Daniel Kahneman

“The potential value is tremendous,” Krueger said. “Right now we use national income as our main indicator of well-being, but income is only a small contributor to life satisfaction. Ultimately, if our survey is successful and generates the type of data we hope, we would like to see the government implement our method to provide an ongoing measure of well-being in addition to national income.”

“Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or particular populations within it are doing,” said Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his pioneering integration of psychological research about decision-making into economics. “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.”

Using the DRM, the researchers asked 909 women to recall the previous day as a sequence of episodes and rate the presence or absence of various feelings during each of those episodes. Results were compared to experiments based on “experience sampling” methods (ESM), the current gold standard in well-being studies, in which subjects record their actions and feelings several times throughout the day.

The new method proved to be less expensive and more efficient, according to the researchers. “It imposes less respondent burden; does not disrupt normal activities; and provides an assessment of contiguous episodes over a full day, rather than a sampling of moments,” they wrote. It also relies less on respondents’ selective memory than global life satisfaction questions, and provides a better picture of how people budget their time than experience sampling.

The method has garnered widespread media attention by revealing that certain activities, such as taking care of children or going to work, are not as enjoyable as people have indicated in previous studies. In the enjoyment scale developed using the DRM, child rearing ranked behind socializing, eating, watching television and napping, among other activities.

“What we find when we go episode by episode is that taking care of children is a chore, and the mood that people are exhibiting when they’re taking care of children is not particularly positive compared to other activities they engage in. This provides a more accurate representation of people’s affect or mood during the course of the day,” Krueger said.

“If you ask people if they enjoy spending time with their children, they usually give an upbeat response. Yet other studies have found that if you ask people about their life satisfaction and you track them over time, life satisfaction tends to jump up after the children move out of the house,” he said. “Psychologists believe that people give you the answer that they think you want to hear or that they think is socially responsible. They also may access experiences that are not representative when asked general questions about how much they enjoy taking care of their kids, like taking the children to the zoo or to a movie.”

The study also supports previous findings that money does not buy much happiness. The income and education levels of the respondents had less impact on the enjoyment of their daily activities than factors such as their temperament and sleep quality, the researchers noted.

The Princeton researchers collaborated with psychologists David Schkade of the University of California-San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Arthur Stone of the State University of New York-Stony Brook.

The National Institute on Aging 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 also supported by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and National Science Foundation.

“Current measures of well-being and quality of life need to be significantly improved,” said Richard Suzman, associate director of the NIA. “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.”