How Many Ways Can We Measure Well-Being?
Reconsidering how we think about the subject.
Posted October 12, 2017
Given the bitterness of ideological battles in the modern world, it is important for social scientists to illuminate where the evidence lies and help explain the divergence between truth and fiction. For scientists, no question is off limits. The primary issue is whether a question is testable. Many of the hot-button issues debated in online forums and face-to-face conversations—or scrutinized privately for fear of retribution—can be reformulated into a testable question:
- Do children possess more cognitive and behavioral problems in families with two gay parents?
- Who is more misogynistic, adults with conservative or liberal political leanings?
- Do people who frequently use social media experience greater loneliness?
- To what degree does childhood sexual abuse predict the presence of emotional disturbances in adulthood?
- Are today’s college students more narcissistic than their counterparts in the 1950s?
Each of these questions has been tested by scientists. Some of the results will reinforce your beliefs, others will be hard to reconcile with them. In any closely knit group such as liberals, conservatives, gender studies majors, or militant atheists, there is a tendency to hold on to preconceived notions with an iron-clad grip. Evidence and news stories that confirm your beliefs are relished with minimal critical thought; disconfirming evidence and news stories are viewed warily and scrutinized in depth.
Much of my adult life has been devoted to the study of well-being and personality strengths. And when you research these positive psychology topics, it can be hard to critique existing ideas and norms. The reason is that the vast majority of people in the field prefer supportive, upbeat, harmonious, pleasant attitudes over a critical debate. I would argue for an alternative approach. When ideas and norms within the group are viewed as potentially wrong or even harmful, deviation can be viewed as an act of loyalty, done with the hope of improving the group.
In the modern world, people form opinions, write about them, and, with social media, can draw the attention of thousands of people. When expressed by influential people, many of these opinions are construed as truth—even facts. But new research by my colleagues challenges an idea that has received great fanfare in the field of positive psychology without the usual skepticism, doubt, and critique that is typical prior to worldwide acclaim.
Consider this: In 2016, three scientists reviewed the usefulness of 99 approaches to assess well-being. Ninety-nine! In the list were measures of overall quality of life, serenity, spiritual concerns, emotional balance, autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth initiative, positive relations with others, purpose in life, self-acceptance, self-esteem, occupational well-being, physical well-being, economic well-being, and so on. Exhausting to read. More importantly, it led my colleagues and I to think—how many dimensions of well-being are there?
The latest sensation in well-being theories is PERMA. Dr. Martin Seligman's most recent book, Flourish, identified five components of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment—hence the acronym. He argues that each of these five components are intrinsically rewarding, representing a valuable end game for any human activity. Together, these five indicators of well-being supposedly give rise to human flourishing. (Don't ask for the difference between well-being and flourishing; I am still trying to figure that out for myself.) The value of this five-dimensional model is clarified in a journal article authored by Martin Seligman and his graduate students:
Just as we do not have a single indicator telling us how our car is performing (instead, we have an odometer, a speedometer, a gas gauge, etc.), we suggest that we do not want just one indicator of how well people are doing
Enticing. A testable question emerges from these writings—are there, in fact, five useful dimensions of well-being as pronounced by people creating and applying PERMA? This is an important question because measures of PERMA are being used to evaluate business organizations and entire schools and universities. If PERMA is being used as a determination of whether a program works, then the measure should be on solid footing.
We tested whether PERMA offers something unique above and beyond the widely used model of well-being created in 1984 by Dr. Ed Diener. A model described succinctly as three parts (frequent positive emotions, infrequent negative emotions, and a mental evaluation that life is generally satisfying):
Subjective well-being is a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgments of life satisfaction. Each of the specific constructs need to be understood in their own right, yet the components often correlate substantially, suggesting the need for the higher order factor (Stones & Kozma, 1985).
Note the last point made by Ed Diener and his colleagues—the three elements of well-being are probably part of a single, overarching factor. In 2016, with a sample of 7,617 adults from 109 countries, we found evidence for a single dimension of well-being that encapsulates these three elements of Ed Diener's model. We wondered whether PERMA truly offers a new contribution to the model or also converges into a single dimension where people endorse a well-lived life.
We found a correlation of 0.98 between the seminal model of subjective well-being put forth more than 30 years ago and the PERMA model of Martin Seligman. 0.98! A number that suggests unity. Zero differences. These results add to a growing body of work (Disabato et al., 2016; Jovanovic, 2015; Longo et al., 2016) that suggests well-being is best conceptualized as one single factor consisting of unique facets rather than the presence of unique types of well-being.
But we also wanted to examine whether PERMA offers something new in predicting the presence of personality strengths. We examined whether Seligman's PERMA model predicted the presence of 24 strengths—such as curiosity, creativity, bravery, love, and hope—differently than the classic subjective well-being model. Once again, we found near-zero differences between the classic and new models of well-being. Check out Table 3 on the right for the details. For 23 of 24 personality strengths, the correlation difference between the two types of well-being were .05 or less, suggesting an insanely substantial level of similarity.
So what does this all mean? This is the fourth study to be published in the past two years to show that for all of the flourish in creating multi-dimensional models of well-being with catchy acronyms, the data tell a different story. Our findings suggest new models of well-being do not necessarily yield new types of well-being. Scientific progress is made when new models of well-being offer new insights beyond existing models. We encourage researchers to stress test their models to see if what already exists suffices and if new contributions will offer added value. This is the beauty of science. Ask good questions. Test them. Iterate as often as needed. But this is my scientific lens.
A well-being framework can be useful to trigger conversation without being practical from a strict measurement perspective. This raises some interesting questions that might be outside the province of scientific testing.
Should new models really be novel or more true to people’s lived experiences? What makes one any more valid than another? Academics continue to hold perspectives and worldviews that far too often removed from the daily lives of people. If anything, new models might benefit from being derived bottom-up from lots of people, not narrowly limited top-down from academics (including us!).
If we are to adopt distinct standards for research and practice, then the creators, researchers, and practitioners must be candid about where a model does and does not have value. Our work suggests it is premature for the PERMA model to be considered a useful measure in research and program evaluation efforts. Unfortunately, people do not wait for the science because of their lust for the new. Our results suggest that in terms of selecting measures to assess well-being, some patience is needed. Classic, existing measures might be as good or better than the new PERMA measures.
Let us separate the scientific contribution from the psychological value of thinking about oneself through the prism of positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.
My hope is that we retain a healthy level of skepticism, constantly asking questions, testing them, and over time, gaining a better handle of the complexity of the human condition.
NOTE: This study, which was funded by Susan Cain and the Quiet Revolution, is part of a larger initiative to create a new scale to measure introversion. Send me an email to keep abreast of new studies and discoveries.