If the latest statistics are to be believed, personal well-being is rising across the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), people have reported feeling happier, more satisfied with life, more fulfilled and less anxious year on year since 2012. The ONS have even created an interactive tool, so that residents can see how their local area has fared over the years.
But is it really possible to gather meaningful data by asking people to rate their well-being? After all, it is difficult to define experiences such as happiness and satisfaction – let alone quantify these concepts in a questionnaire. This is something I have experienced in my own research on life satisfaction. While being interviewed on the radio about my work, the interviewer questioned whether it is even possible to measure such a subjective concept.
But researchers who use surveys would argue that it is possible. In fact, some would even suggest that the subjective nature of well-being makes it particularly suited to being measured in this way. This is because questionnaires allow participants to reflect upon how they feel at a specific moment in time, and our sense of well-being is often coloured by our private perceptions of our lives.
The ONS came up with its results by asking participants to answer four questions, which they answered using a scale from zero to ten:
Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile? Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday? Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
And here’s what these data look like, mapped out across the nation:
Within psychology, it is relatively common to measure people’s feelings and attitudes using questionnaires. But it is rarer to do so using just one question per outcome, like the ONS did. This is because single questions are not very reliable: they can easily be misread or misinterpreted.
So, instead of the ONS’s single question about life satisfaction, a more reliable alternative would be to use a scale, such as the Satisfaction With Life Scale. This involves asking participants five questions about life satisfaction, and then calculating their average response. A scale like this may give a better picture of a person’s life satisfaction than a single question.
Yet there are still many instances in research where a single question can be effective. A good example is physical health, where a participant’s response to a question about their current health status is a good predictor of their risk of death: one study found that people who rated their health as “poor” had a mortality risk twice as high as people who rated their health as “excellent”.
So, it’s certainly possible for a participant’s answer to a single question to reveal a great deal about their well-being. And while there is an argument to be made about the limitations of a questionnaire approach to measuring well-being, it is one of the few options available to a researcher who wishes to gather data from a large number of participants – around 165,000, in the case of the ONS’ study.
In fact, the advantage of such a large number of participants is that any unusual variations in the data (such as a participant answering a question about anxiety a day after they felt unusually anxious) will be “averaged out” across the participants, ultimately making the data more useful than if it had come from a smaller group of participants. This is a particular strength of the ONS statistics.
It’s all relative
That said, there are ways that the ONS could improve the types of questions that it asks participants in the future. One interesting concept I have explored in my research is Subjective Social Status (SSS): or, how a person views their position in society relative to other people.
A number of researchers have shown that low SSS is related to low levels of health and well-being. These studies even include medical measures of well-being, such as the likelihood of catching a cold, of being obese or of having diabetes.
With the current climate of austerity in the UK, one could argue that the division between the well-off and the less well-off is particularly severe. Given that countries with the highest levels of income inequality between citizens tend to be those with the lowest levels of well-being, adding a question about participants’ SSS could allow the ONS to explore well-being in more depth.
This could also reveal useful information about participants’ views on the current state of society, and how this changes with time. Ultimately, while there is no perfect way to measure a complex concept like well-being, it is heartening to see that the ONS has reported this increase: long may it continue.