Sunday, September 27, 2015

How good is life satisfaction as a measure of psychological flourishing?

In recent years psychologists have adopted a number of somewhat different approaches to measuring psychological flourishing. This is not an area in which I can claim much expertise, but that will not stop me from writing about it. The question of what it means for a human to flourish is one that everyone should be encouraged to consider for themselves.

The definition of flourishing adopted by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So in their article ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013) viewed it as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. The authors identified 10 features of positive well-being by examining internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety (DSM and ICD) and defining the opposite of each symptom. The 10 symptoms of flourishing identified were: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality.

A measure of flourishing was developed from responses to questions included in the European Social Survey. Indicators used were as follows:
  • Competence: Most days I feel a sense of accomplishment from what I do;
  • Emotional stability: (In the past week) I felt calm and peaceful;
  • Engagement: I love learning new things;
  • Meaning: I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile;
  • Optimism: I am always optimistic about my future;
  • Positive emotion: Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
  • Positive relationships: There are people in my life who really care about me;
  • Resilience: When things go wrong in my life it generally takes me a long time to get back to normal (reverse score);
  • Self-esteem: In general, I feel very positive about myself;
  • Vitality: (In the past week) I had a lot of energy.

I would have liked to see autonomy included in this list. Adult humans can hardly be said to be flourishing if they do not exercise their potential to organize their own lives. The authors argue against including autonomy on the grounds that its opposite is not specified in the DSM and ICD. It is difficult to accept that mental health professionals do not view failure to become or remain an autonomous individual as a mental disorder. Various problems in self-direction seem to be recognized as associated with personality disorders in DSM-5.

Leaving as aside my views about their failure to incorporate autonomy in their measure of flourishing, one of the attractive features of the approach adopted by Huppert and So is that it does not pretend to provide a comprehensive measure of human flourishing. It relates specifically to the psychological aspects of individual human flourishing and doesn’t pretend to encompass physical health, wealth, practical wisdom etc.

One interesting feature of the results of the study using data from a sample of 43,000 Europeans was that the individuals identified as flourishing did not correspond very closely to those identified as having high life satisfaction. For Europe as a whole, the percentage who were both flourishing and had high life satisfaction was 7.3%. Among people who met the criterion for flourishing, 46.0% had high life satisfaction, and among people who had high life satisfaction, 38.7% were flourishing. (The correlation between life satisfaction and flourishing was only 0.34.) The authors conclude:
“Clearly, flourishing and life satisfaction are overlapping but distinct concepts, and a great deal would be lost by measuring life satisfaction alone, although there is frequently pressure in large scale surveys to do so.”

However, the ranking of European countries according to the estimated percentage of the population who are flourishing seems fairly consistent with the rankings obtained using life satisfaction. In in order to compare the ratings with a similar measure based on life satisfaction, I have used the Gallup organisation's data on “thriving” covering a similar time period. Gallup uses the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale to measure life satisfaction by asking respondents to place the status of their lives on a "ladder" scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where 0 indicates the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life. Individuals are classified as thriving if they rate their current lives a "7" or higher and their future lives at "8" or higher. The relationship between the estimated percentages “flourishing” and “thriving” is shown in the graph below.

It seems clear from the graph that it doesn’t matter a great deal whether you use indicators of psychological health or life satisfaction to compare the psychological well-being of people in different countries. (At a national level the correlation between flourishing and thriving is 0.87.) The errors in using life satisfaction as an indicator of flourishing that are evident at an individual level tend to cancel out in aggregating to a national level.

What this means, I think, is that if you want to know about an individual’s psychological well-being, measures of life satisfaction are a poor indicator. However, if you are looking for a summary indicator of psychological well-being at a national or regional level, life satisfaction might be good enough.

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