Self-reported life satisfaction
Related research and writing
Frequently Asked Questions
One way to gauge whether self-reports provide a valid measure of happiness or life satisfaction is to see how well they correlate with things that typically associate with contentment.
Such a correlation has been found, for example, with smiling and laughing.
Experimental psychologists have also shown that self reports of well-being from surveys turn out to correlate with activity in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and satisfaction. And various surveys have confirmed that people who say they are happy also tend to sleep better and express positive emotions verbally more frequently.
The main conclusion from the evidence is that survey-based measures of happiness and life satisfaction do provide a reasonably consistent and reliable picture of subjective well-being.
The most natural way to attempt to measure subjective well-being is to ask people what they think and feel. Indeed, this is the most common approach.
In practice, social scientists tend to rely on questions inquiring directly about happiness, or on questions inquiring about life satisfaction. The former tend to measure the experiential or emotional aspects of well-being (e.g. “I feel very happy”), while the latter tend to measure the evaluative or cognitive aspects of well-being (e.g. “I think I lead a very positive life”).
The chart below plots a measure of average happiness against a measure of average life satisfaction.
Along the X-axis we show data from the World Value Survey, which asks directly about happiness: “Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy, (iv) Not at all happy, (v) Don’t know.” Shown is the share of respondents who say they are ‘very happy’ or ‘rather happy’.
On the Y-axis is data from the Gallup World Poll, which uses the Cantril Ladder question and asks respondents to evaluate their life: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” Shown is the average reported score.
As the visualization shows, these two measures are clearly closely related (countries that score high in one measure also tend to score high in the other), yet they are not identical (there is substantial dispersion, with many countries sharing the same score in one variable but diverging in the other).
The differences in responses to questions inquiring about life satisfaction and happiness are consistent with the idea that subjective well-being has two sides: an experiential or emotional side, and an evaluative or cognitive side. Of course, the limits between emotional and cognitive aspects of well-being are blurred in our minds; so in practice both kinds of questions measure both aspects to some degree. Indeed, social scientists often construct ‘subjective well-being indexes’ where they simply average out results from various types of questions.
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