A new research method that quantifies people's quality of life -- beyond how much money they make -- could lead to a national index of well-being, similar to key measures of economic health.
The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), developed by Princeton researchers and colleagues from three universities, creates an "enjoyment scale" by requiring people to record the previous day's activities in a short diary form and describe their feelings about the experiences. The technique is more effective than current methods of measuring the well-being of individuals and of society, the researchers said in the Dec. 3 issue of Science.
The new tool will be used in an effort to calculate a "national well-being account," a measure similar to economic gauges such as the gross national product. The research team is working with the Gallup Organization to pilot a national telephone survey using the new method.
"The potential value is tremendous," said Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who worked with psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, on the study. "Right now we use national income as our main indicator of well-being, but income is only a small contributor to life satisfaction. Ultimately, if our survey is successful and generates the type of data we hope, we would like to see the government implement our method to provide an ongoing measure of well-being in addition to national income."
The Princeton researchers collaborated with psychologists David Schkade of the University of California-San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Arthur Stone of the State University of New York-Stony Brook.
"Current measures of well-being and quality of life need to be significantly improved," said Richard Suzman, associate director of the National Institute on Aging, which partially funded the research. "In the future I predict that this approach will become an essential part of national surveys seeking to assess the quality of life. The construction of a national well-being account that supplements the measure of GNP with a measure of aggregate happiness is a revolutionary idea."
Using the DRM method, the researchers asked 909 women to recall the previous workday as a sequence of episodes and rate the psychological and social aspects of those activities. Results were compared to experiments based on more common "experience sampling" methods (ESM) used in well-being studies, in which subjects record their actions and feelings several times throughout the day.
The new method proved to be less expensive and more efficient, according to the researchers. "It imposes less respondent burden; does not disrupt normal activities; and provides an assessment of contiguous episodes over a full day, rather than a sampling of moments," they wrote. It also relies less on respondents' selective memory and provides a better picture of how people budget their time.
The study also supports previous findings that money does not buy happiness, the researchers said. The income and education levels of the respondents had less impact on the enjoyment of their daily activities than factors such as their temperament and sleep quality.
"Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or particular populations within it are doing. A measure of how different categories of people spend their time and of how they experience their activities could provide a useful indication of the well-being of society," said Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his pioneering integration of psychological research about decision-making into economics.
"The DRM can serve this purpose, and it is likely to be useful for medical researchers, epidemiologists, economists and others," he added.
The NIA recently awarded the team that developed the DRM a grant as an Edward R. Roybal Center for Research on Applied Gerontology to pursue further study of measures of well-being. The initial development of the DRM was also supported by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and National Science Foundation.
Krueger noted that the interdisciplinary nature of the team was crucial to the development of the new research tool and its future applications. "Both psychologists and economists bring different perspectives to the study of well-being," he said. "This type of work could not have been done without collaboration across disciplines."