Monday, April 21, 2008

How well do happiness surveys measure human flourishing?

As discussed earlier (What does flourishing mean?) the concept of human flourishing can be related to Abraham Maslow’s view that humans have a hierarchy of needs. It is possible to think in terms of a spectrum of outcomes: at one end of the spectrum individuals struggle to meet their basic survival needs; at the other end of the spectrum individuals have the satisfaction of having been able to fully develop and actualize their fullest potentialities and capacities. The happiness measured in surveys may thus be related to the satisfaction of various needs.

One possible difference between the happiness measured in surveys and human flourishing arises from the distinction between hedonic enjoyment (e.g. feelings of happiness, satisfaction, pleasure) and eudemonia or personal expressiveness (e.g. feelings of being alive, involved, fulfilled). Research indicates that when activities are rated high on eudemonia there is a high probability that they will also receive a high hedonic rating. However, when activities are rated high on hedonic enjoyment there is not such a high probability that they will receive a high rating on eudemonia. (See: Alan Waterman et al, ‘The implications of two conceptions of happiness ...’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008). It seems to me that this implies that some people who claim to be happy are not really flourishing.

Another relevant consideration is whether the satisfaction that people feel with their lives is lasting and justified. Charles Murray defines happiness as: “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” ( In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government,1988. This wording is close to the avowed ‘satisfaction with life as a whole’ measured in surveys. However, some people who claim to be satisfied may not experience “lasting and justified” satisfaction.

Do the responses that people give to survey questions asking about their satisfaction with life as a whole reflect their considered judgements? A framework developed by Chu Kim-Prieto, Ed Diener et al seems to shed some light on this ( ‘Integrating the diverse definitions of happiness ...’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2005.) The framework views subjective well-being (SWB) as evolving in a sequence of four major stages: life circumstances and events; affective reactions to those events, recall of one’s reactions and global evaluative judgements about one’s life. The authors argue that an understanding of how people evaluate their lives requires knowledge of each of the stages because they are connected in an integral fashion.

The reports people that make about life satisfaction tend to be fairly stable over time because in making these judgements they apparently tend to use the same sources of information repeatedly (for example, family relationships) and the information itself tends to be somewhat stable. The judgements that individuals make thus presumably relate to the domains of life that they consider to be most important (chronically salient) unless they have been primed by situational factors to consider other matters.

Kim-Prieto et al point out that personality has an important influence at each of the four stages. There is evidence that it influences the events people experience (e.g. divorce), their emotional reactions to events, their memories of their reactions and the information they are likely to select when constructing judgements about life as a whole.

However, the influence of personality extends beyond personal traits. Research undertaken by Dan McAdams indicates that we all tend to create ‘life stories’ that integrate our reconstructed past, perceived present and anticipated future. These qualities of these life stories can have an important influence on reports of subjective well-being. (See, for example: Jack Bauer, Dan McAdams and April Sakaeda, ‘Interpreting the Good Life: Growth memories in the lives of mature, happy people’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005).

To sum up, the responses that people give when asked to make global assessments of life satisfaction should not be lightly dismissed as being of little relevance to human flourishing. These responses may often reflect judgements that people have made about domains of life that are particularly important to them.

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