Sunday, August 31, 2014

Should life evaluations be anchored to the best and worst periods of our lives?

Survey data on life satisfaction is a reliable tool for measuring some aspects of well-being. There is evidence (including in some research reported on this blog) that survey measures of life satisfaction are closely related to perceptions of achievement, personal relationships, standard of living, links to community, health and future security. There is also evidence that when people are asked to evaluate their life satisfaction they tend to think about things such as their career, romantic life, family, standard of living and health (See: Maike Luhmann

However, as previously discussed on this blog (here, here and here) there is a problem in comparing life satisfaction ratings from surveys conducted at different times because reference norms do not remain static.  When we are asked to rate our satisfaction with life we do so relative to reference norms, such as by comparing the quality of our lives with those of people we know, or by comparing our current lives with ‘the best possible life’. That means that we are rating our lives against benchmarks that can change as a result of such things as technological advances. For example, if we perceive that people living the best possible life have access to useful communications devices, such as iPhones, we may rate our own lives less highly if we cannot afford such devices.

If we see our lives improving in line with our perceptions of the best possible life, it is hardly surprising if we give similar ratings to their lives in successive surveys. It should be obvious that it would be a mistake under those circumstances to interpret stable ratings as implying that there has been no improvement in the quality of our lives. Before claiming that people are on some kind of hedonic treadmill that requires them to run faster to stay in the same place, researchers should be sure that the measurement tools they are using are actually capable of measuring progress.

Similarly, when researchers see life satisfaction ratings return to previous levels after people suffer some misfortune, they should be sure that they are using appropriate measurement tools before they claim that this means that the people concerned have not experienced any lasting loss of well-being. It is commendable and often therapeutic to “look on the bright side of life”, but if life evaluations reflect frames of mind it may be problematic to interpret them as a judgement about overall well-being.

That point can be illustrated by reference to a South African study in which conventional life satisfaction and happiness ratings were compared with scores on the ACSA scale. (See: Valerie MøllerPeter TheunsIda Erstad and Jan Bernheim, ‘The Best and Worst Times of Life: Narratives and Assessments of subjective Well-Being by Anamnestic Comparative Self Assessment (ACSA) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’, Soc Indic Res, 89(1) 2008.)

The ACSA approach to measuring well-being and changes in well-being was first suggested by Jan Bernheim about 30 years ago. Its distinctive feature is to ask survey respondents to rate their current well-being by comparison with their memory of the best and worst periods of their own lives, with the best period being given a rating of +5 and the worst period being given a rating of -5. The scale is left open so that subsequent scores higher than +5 or lower than -5 are possible if individuals consider that their lives have improved or deteriorated sufficiently.

The South African study involved 46 respondents, 20 of whom were patients in a TB hospital. In general, the three measures of subjective well-being were strongly correlated with each other, but there was weak correlation between life satisfaction and ACSA for the TB patients. Again, while there were no significant differences between the averages of conventional life satisfaction and happiness ratings of the TB patients and others included in the survey, on the ACSA scale the average ratings of the TB patients were about 30 per cent lower than for the others included in the survey.

The authors note that while they did not ask for life stories when they were obtaining ACSA scores, they observed that respondents tended to string the momentous events in their lives together, using anchor periods as reference points to shape a coherent narrative. Interviews lasted between half an hour and 45 minutes and respondents “generally had no difficulty with the task”.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post wondering why more use has not been made of ACSA. I am still wondering. It seems to me that it would be potentially useful to incorporate an ACSA question for a sub-sample of respondents whose well-being has been monitored over an extended period in longitudinal studies (such as GSOEP, HILDA and BHPS). The accounts of changes in well-being over time provided by those surveys would be more plausible if life evaluations were anchored to consistent reference points corresponding to the best and worst periods of the lives of respondents.

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