Measuring Subjective Well-Being

No subject can mature without finding a way to quantify its core constructs. Improving subjective well-being is at the heart of health care, economics, social services, and more. Measurement of this ontologically and epistemologically subjective construct is obviously not straightforward; two people may record pain seven on a ten-point scale, but this does not mean their experiences were identical. However, at the population level it is not necessary for measures to correspond – it is sufficient that they correlate, so that on average people scoring seven have more pain than those scoring six.[1] One way to determine whether a measure is valid in this sense is to see whether it correlates with other variables that are part of the same latent (underlying) construct. Pain, for example, correlates with various neurophysiological and endocrine changes and with other health outcomes. Comparing groups of people can, however, be problematic if there are systematic differences between them in how they record the same experience. Various techniques can be used to mitigate bias when groups are compared – use of rich verbal descriptions of scenarios rather than more abstract descriptions, for example. People also adapt to a new state over time, but it is hard to separate genuine change in experience from “re-calibration” in how the scale is used.

An article in Science provides a romp over the state of science in this topic.[2] It introduces the important idea that policy should aim to minimise distress rather than maximise well-being. Depending on how these constructs are conceptualised and measured, the latter is not necessarily a simple reciprocal of the former. Krueger and Stone [3] have recently come up with an index based on proportion of a person’s waking times spent in an unpleasant emotional state – the U index.[4] This line of argument appeals to the CLAHRC WM Director, who thinks that much more can be achieved by reliving distress than seeking the utopian goal of maximising everyone’s hedonistic experience of life. There are great dangers in using public policy as a tool to achieve the latter, as vividly portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece.[5]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Searle JR. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books. 1996.
  2. Kahneman D, Krueger AB, Schkade D, Schwarz N, Stone AA. Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion. Science. 2006; 312(5782): 1908-10.
  3. Krueger AB, Stone AA. Progress in measuring subjective well-being. Science. 2014; 346(6205): 42-3.
  4. Krueger AB. Measuring the subjective well-being of nations: National accounts of time use and well-being. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2009.
  5. Huxley A. Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus. 1932.

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