Who Knows If You’re Happy?

Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience

a report by the National Research Council, edited by Arthur A. Stone and Christopher Mackie
National Academies Press, 188 pp., $44.00 (paper); available online at www.nap.edu
Esther Bubley Estate Collection/Standard Oil (NJ) Collection/Photographic Archives, University of Louisville
Car hop serving motorists at a drive-in eating place in Keemah, Texas, September 1945; photograph by Esther Bubley from David Campany’s The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, just published by Aperture

When I was working in the federal government in 2010, I asked a colleague how things were going. His answer was unusual: “My moment-by-moment happiness is pretty low, but my life satisfaction is great.” As it happens, he was an expert on the last two decades of social science research on happiness (often called “subjective well-being”), and he was referring to two different measures of that elusive concept.

The first measure, and still the most popular, is to ask people to say how satisfied they are with their lives, frequently on a bounded scale of 0 to 10. Remarkably, most people are willing to give rapid responses to that question. (In the United Kingdom, the average was recently 7.4.)

If we take such responses seriously, we will be able to reach some conclusions about how people are affected by income, unemployment, marriage, divorce, children, long working days, and illness. By this measure, both men and women become much happier in the year that they get married. But a few years after that point, they return to their pre-marriage state (and women actually appear to fall below it).

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, but some of the social science findings are jarring. In particular, many apparently terrible events have only modest effects on people’s subjective well-being (after an initial period of distress). In answering questionnaires, kidney dialysis patients and young people who have lost a limb as a result of cancer do not show reduced levels of life satisfaction. Paraplegics show only modest reductions. Colostomy patients report levels of life satisfaction that are about the same as those of people who have not had colostomies. Whether or not we trust these findings, they require some kind of explanation.

When social scientists ask people about satisfaction in life, they are asking for some kind of overall evaluation; they are not measuring people’s actual feelings as they experience their lives. Within the literature on subjective well-being, it is now common to distinguish between “evaluative well-being,” reflecting people’s general evaluations, and “experienced well-being,” reflecting people’s assessments of their experiences as they actually live them.

If you spend a week doing volunteer work at a soup kitchen, you might have a high level of life satisfaction, but you might not much enjoy what you are doing. If you spend a day watching a dozen episodes of a silly (but fun) television series, you might not feel satisfied, but you might have enjoyed the day; the idea of “guilty pleasures” captures the phenomenon. And in fact, social scientists have uncovered some systematic differences between people’s overall evaluations and their assessments…

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