Data on people's self-reported 'experienced' well-being could help inform policies

December 04, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Gathering survey data on "experienced" well-being - the self-reported levels of contentment, joy, stress, frustration, and other feelings people experience throughout the day and while engaged in various activities -- would be valuable to inform policies, says a new report from the National Research Council. In particular, data on specific actions intended to improve the living and working conditions of different population groups, including children or older adults, show promise in developing policies and practices in such areas as end of life care, commuting, child custody laws, and city planning, to name a few.

"The most compelling case for gathering data on experienced well-being is to identify particular populations that are suffering and to shed light on ways to alleviate that suffering," said Arthur Stone, chair of the committee that wrote the report and distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology at Stony Brook University. Yet, because some methodological issues still need to be resolved, he noted, questions that gauge experienced well-being should initially be included in government surveys on an experimental or pilot basis.

The report was requested by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council, which asked the National Research Council to assess whether measuring experienced well-being has value for informing policy. Interest in measuring self-reported or "subjective" well-being has grown in recent years, as some policymakers and researchers have doubted whether traditional economic measures, such as gross domestic product, can by themselves adequately reflect the quality of life of a population or country. However, the committee that wrote the report expressed skepticism about the current usefulness of aggregating data on self-reported well-being into a single number meant to track an average happiness level of an entire population.

The report focuses on experienced well-being -- moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, and day-to-day feelings of pleasure, contentment, anxiety, pain, etc. - but it cautions that well-informed policy decisions also need to consider other "evaluative" and "eudaimonic" aspects of self-reported well-being. Evaluative well-being reflects a person's assessment of his or her overall life satisfaction. Eudaimonic well-being refers to a person's perceptions of purpose, and the meaningfulness (or pointlessness) of the activities he or she is engaged in and of overall life quality. An activity can rate highly in one area and low in another. For example, time caring for children is typically reported as being more meaningful than pleasurable; in contrast, the opposite is true for other activities, such as watching television.

Which aspects of subjective well-being are most relevant and important to measure depend on the policy question to be addressed, the report says. For example, in studies of housing conditions or patient outcomes associated with medical treatment, moment-to-moment measures of both 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 were engaged in when they felt a certain way - often enhances the policy relevance of data on experienced well-being, the report says.

Several government and private surveys already include questions on experienced well-being, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey. The report identifies many more specialized government surveys - such as the American Housing Survey and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics - that are candidates for inclusion of experienced well-being questions. Questions could also be considered for inclusion on a pilot basis in the broader population surveys of the federal statistical agencies, as they have been in the U.K.
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.


Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Rachel Brody, Media Relations Associate
Office of News and Public Information
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Additional resources:

Full Report

Copies of Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Committee on National Statistics

Panel on Measuring Subjective Well-Being in a Policy-Relevant Framework

Arthur A. Stone (chair)
Distinguished Professor
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, N.Y.

Norman M. Bradburn
Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Department of Psychology
University of Chicago

Laura L. Carstensen
Professor of Psychology, and
Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor of Public Policy
Department of Psychology
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

Edward F. Diener
Joseph R. Smiley Distinguished Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Illinois

Paul H. Dolan
Professor of Behavioural Science
Department of Social Policy
London School of Economics and Political Science

Carol L. Graham
Senior Fellow, and
Charles Robinson Chair
The Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.

V. Joseph Hotz
Arts and Sciences Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Daniel Kahneman[i]
Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology
and Public Affairs
Woodrow Wilson School
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Arie Kapteyn
Professor of Economics, and
Founding Director
Center for Economic and Social Research
University of Southern California
Santa Monica

Amanda Sacker
International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health
UK Economic and Social Research Council
Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health
University College London

Norbert Schwarz
Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor
Department of Psychology
Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Justin Wolfers
Professor of Economics
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor


Christopher Mackie
Study Director

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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