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Is self-reporting happiness reliable?

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Unsurprisingly, measuring the happiness of a nation – let alone an individual – is a difficult task. Most people would agree that happiness is an internal state, but whether it’s best to think of it as a single emotion, a collection of emotions, or a quality that certain people are disposed to is not obvious. The struggle with definition is one of many challenges that social science faces when trying to assess the extent to which a person is happy. This post explores some of these challenges, looking at the biases that occur when people report their own happiness.

Why should we care about measuring happiness?

We care about happiness not only because it feels good (and therefore can be thought of as an end in itself), but because it seems to work as a good proxy for other aspects of well-being (things like physical and mental health, fulfilling relationships and satisfying work). Institutions like governments, corporations and universities therefore consider measures of happiness a useful way to assess how their behaviours are affecting the general population. On a personal level, being able to examine the aspects of our lives that most significantly affect our happiness allows us to make better judgements about the changes we can make to improve our well-being.

Focusing on an individual’s subjective experience has gained popularity over the last decade, largely as the result of skepticism surrounding the use of income as a reliable measure of well-being. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton (winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences) published a study in 2010 that looked at the self-reported life satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect and stress levels of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Evaluating how satisfied a person is with their life overall and evaluating the extent to which someone experiences positive and negative emotion are two different approaches to measuring happiness which we’ll go on to talk about in detail.

Kahneman and Deaton discovered that, while life satisfaction continued to increase slowly with income (with doubling of income having a constant increase in life satisfaction), the participants felt no increase in positive affect after their household income reached $75,000, nor did their experience of negative affect or stress levels improve.

One reason for this could be that, once you have a lot of money, each additional dollar is less valuable to you; other factors, like health, relationships and a sense of purpose, become more of a priority than income. Another reason might be the different cognitive approaches people take to answering questions of life satisfaction and positive and negative affect. These questions form the foundation of Subjective Well-Being measures, the most popular method of measuring happiness. Throughout this article we use the words “happiness” and “well-being” will be used interchangeably, although there is some debate as to whether SWB fully captures this everything that we mean when we describe ourselves as happy.

How do we measure happiness?

Subjective Well-Being (SWB) is a method of measuring happiness that emphasises the individual’s assessment of their own thoughts and feelings. Measuring SWB involves asking a range of questions (often measured on a scale of 1 to 10) that include:

Evaluative Questions

  • Life Satisfaction: “How satisfied with your life are you overall?”

  • Domain Satisfaction: “Are you satisfied with your health / relationship / career?”

These questions ask us to make a judgement based on the events and emotions we can recall experiencing, either in a specific domain or across the total span of our lives.

Questions on Affect

  • Positive Affect: e.g. “Did you feel joy today?” “Did you laugh a lot today?”

  • Negative Affect: e.g. “Did you feel sad today?” “Did you feel stressed today?”

Judging positive and negative affect, on the other hand, asks us to assess our emotions in that moment, and it is more likely that our answer will reflect events that have happened recently, or that are ongoing.

It is important to measure positive and negative affect separately because they are influenced by different variables. In other words, positive and negative affect are not polar opposites of a spectrum but are separate spectrums. For instance, one person could score highly on both positive AND negative emotion, whereas another could score low on both. It is also possible to experience both kinds of emotions at the same time; we might feel a sad nostalgia or an excited anxiety.

Are evaluative questions reliable?

The biggest concern when asking evaluative questions is that it is quite difficult for people to accurately assess how satisfied they are with their lives overall. Instead of recalling their entire life experience and weighting the different aspects appropriately, people use a variety of shortcuts when coming up with the answer. One such shortcut is to make judgements based on the information that is available at the time, including current mood, recent events and career successes.

But using information more salient to us at the time of the question might not be as much of a problem for measuring life satisfaction as it sounds. Ehrhardt et al. (2000) reports that there is substantial temporal stability in participant’s life satisfaction judgements, meaning much of the information available when we make these judgements remains the same over time.

Another potential problem for the evaluative method is that people tend to make a comparative judgement when assessing their life satisfaction. Evidence suggests that we first judge what the norm of satisfaction is based on our social group, or the group we strive to be part of, then decide whether things like our career status, income or relationships either exceed this norm or fail to meet it.

However, we don’t always respond to social comparison consistently, as noted by the 2003 paper, The Evolving Concept of Subjective Well-Being: “sometimes people may look at individuals who are better off and see these individuals as inspirations (resulting in positive well-being), whereas at other times this type of comparison would leave to a negative comparison and lower levels of well-being.”

Are questions on affect reliable?

Reporting the extent to which we feel positive or negative emotion requires much less information to answer than an evaluative question. This is not to say that is always easier (some people might struggle to put a name to their current feelings), but psychologists usually assume that it takes less effort than analysing the different aspects of our life. It is important to remember that positive affect is only part of what is looked for when trying to determine someone’s happiness; maximising the amount of positive feelings someone experiences is not the same as maximising their well-being.

The well-known opinion pollsters and consulting company, Gallup, provides a Global Emotions Report that surveys the positive and negative affect experienced by 145+ countries. Their 2018 survey reports that Paraguay, Colombia and El Salvador felt the most positive emotion in the last year and the Central African Republic, Iraq and South Sudan felt the most negative emotion. These are quite different results from this year’s World Happiness Report, which is led by Finland, Norway and Denmark and ranks Paraguay, Colombia and El Salvador as 64th, 37th and 40th respectively out of 156 countries.

The discrepancy in these reports appears to stem from a difference in method (the World Happiness Report combines rates of life satisfaction, GDP and life expectancy alongside positive and negative affect), suggesting that measuring well-being with questions of affect is liable to biased results.

One reason that self-reporting affect could be biased is that some cultures might be more likely to report positive feelings than others. Latin American countries have dominated the list of countries that feel the most positive emotions year after year, which could partly reflect a cultural tendency in the region to focus on life’s positives. On the other hand, countries reporting low frequencies of positive emotion and high rates of negative emotion are likely score this way because they are experiencing some kind of internal or external conflict.

There is also research to show that some countries have cultural norms against reporting high frequencies of emotion. For individuals that live in collectivist cultures, there is greater expectation to prioritise the goals of the group above one’s personal feelings. Societies that have this behavioural norm might be more likely to rate their experience of positive and negative affect as quite infrequent.

In contrast, western countries value independent thought highly and are more likely to refer to their internal feelings as a source of information about their well-being (as opposed to how their relatives or friends view them). This might make those from individualistic cultures both more attuned to their emotional states and more confident in expressing them. As with all reports of subjective experience, it is nearly impossible to tell whether people from different cultures are actually feeling different levels of emotion or whether this is just how they claim to be feeling.

In summary:

The SWB measure of happiness includes asking evaluative questions about life satisfaction and questions about internal feelings of positive and negative affect.

  • Evaluating how satisfied we are with our lives requires us to make a complex assessment based on factors like our education, career and annual income.

  • Studies show that we use shortcuts to come to this conclusion, using the information most salient to us at the time of the judgement and comparing this information to those in our social group.

  • Making judgements on affect requires us to use less information than is necessary for an evaluation of life satisfaction.

  • Cultural norms might dictate how likely people to report instances of positive and negative emotion. Those that live in collectivist cultures may value the approval of their family highly and care less about their internal states of mind than more individualistic societies.

While these biases mean that the answers to these questions are not always reliable, these responses still enable us to see the criteria that people believe are most important in their lives. No single question about happiness fully captures what everyone believes is important, but, taken together, measures like life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect can give us a useful perspective on how to improve people’s lives.

Keeping the above in mind, how do you measure happiness in your own life?

If you want some help answering this question, you might be interested in using our Tactics for Happier Living tool. It analyses your happiness from many different perspectives and presents you with a comprehensive report to help you understand the ways in which you are most and least happy.

We also have a program called Savour Your Life, which may help you focus on the really great things in your life, and a Mood Booster program, which contains tested techniques to quickly improve your mood when you need a lift.

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