Are Most People Happy? Exploring the Meaning of Subjective Well-Being Ratings
Are Most People Happy? Exploring the Meaning of Subjective Well-Being Ratings
I. Ponocny 0 1
Ch. Weismayer 0 1
B. Stross 0 1
S. G. Dressler 0 1
0 Department of Applied Statistics and Economics, MODUL University Vienna , Am Kahlenberg 1, 1190 Vienna , Austria
1 & I. Ponocny
The claim that most people are happy and satisfied, assuming that high self-ratings on numerical scales indicate good lives, is cross-checked against extensive verbal reports in a large-scale mixed-methods validation study. For a sample of 500 qualitative interviews conducted in Austria, the usual 10-point-scale self-ratings of life satisfaction and happiness were linked to the content of respondents' actual narrations. Additionally, the narrated well-being was classified according to an alternative evaluation scheme by external raters. The results show that many persons report substantial restrictions to their hedonic experience in spite of high or even very high ratings, and that the narrated well-being evaluation is much more critical than the self-rating. Therefore it is argued that a na¨ıve interpretation of high self-rating values as top life experience systematically ignores negative aspects of life. The claimed predominance of happiness should be substantially reformulated. In particular, more attention should be drawn to resilient satisfaction in the presence of substantial psychological burden, and to the nonnegligible group of highly positive life satisfaction ratings which lack evidence of corresponding hedonic experience in the life narratives.
Subjective well-being (SWB); Single-item scales; Qualitative interviewing; Quality of life; Validity; Mixed methods
It is a common statement in the subjective well-being (SWB) literature that most
people in Western civilization feel happy and are satisfied with their lives. As an
example of corresponding media coverage,
Statistics Austria (2012
) published in a
press release that 79 % of the Austrians are satisfied with their lives, and reported a
‘‘high global life satisfaction’’.
Diener and Diener (1996)
use the phrase ‘‘Most people
are happy’’ as the title for a widely cited article. Indeed, there is a huge amount of data
showing that country averages of life satisfaction (LS) ratings are mostly in the
positive regions, seldom falling below ‘‘the midpoint of the scale’’ or the ‘‘neutral
point’’ (p. 181): ‘‘For moods and emotions, the neutral point refers to that place at
which the individual experiences an equal amount of pleasant and unpleasant affect. A
positive hedonic level refers to experiencing positive affect more of the time than
negative affect.’’ There is also evidence that people spend more time in predominantly
positive hedonic states. In a similar vein,
argues that reported
levels of happiness are more than just relative values. However, Biswas-Diener et al.
(2005: 205) conclude: ‘‘Thus, the fact that most people tend to be moderately happy
does not mean that they are ecstatic.’’ Considering certain kinds of positivity
tendencies in the ratings, they add later (223): ‘‘In other words, positive happiness ratings
do not indicate that conditions are excellent or that the society need not be improved.’’
Indeed, other sources of evidence about psychological states seem to convey a less
optimistic impression than satisfaction charts. As an example, prevalence of mental
disorders in the past year is estimated as high as 27 % in the European Union
and 19 % in the US
Cummins and Nistico (2002
: 37) suspect a positive cognitive bias underlying the
‘‘remarkable level of uniformity’’ regarding self-rated SWB, which they specifically
attribute to a necessity of keeping up self-esteem, control and optimism.
Tomyn and Cummins (2011)
assume a general tendency of homeostatically
protecting one’s own mood inhibiting negative thoughts about one’s life. Comparing the
shape of different distributions, the former author concludes that homeostatic protection
particularly prevents self-ratings falling below 70 % of the maximum possible value.
This theory refers to LS in general, whereby the articles do not explicitly focus on biases
only due to defense in the moment of responding. Similarly,
formulates high satisfaction in spite of negative circumstances as a ‘‘subjective well-being
paradox’’, and explains it, above all, by means of coping and adaptation processes
also Shmotkin 2005)
Unfortunately, in spite of the complex and subjective character of LS and happiness,
there are hardly any cross-checks at an individual level on what kind of lives and concrete
circumstances are actually represented by numerical self-ratings such as 7 or 8, nor is
there—to the authors’ knowledge—any guideline on how to translate an ‘‘8’’ back into
actual life circumstances. This study tries to bridge this gap by comparing the self-ratings
of 500 interview partners with the contents of in-depth semi-structured qualitative
interviews about their lives.
Measures of SWB
, in particular the aspects of LS (the overall evaluation of
life satisfaction) and happiness (focusing rather on the emotional aspect), are widely used
and have made their way into official statistics and reporting
(Krueger and Stone 2014)
such as the OECD publication ‘‘How’s life?’’
. Many see SWB-assessment
as one of the tools which will enable a move away from the merely economic evaluation of
societies (such as through GDP) towards a more human-centered view: In his seminal
paper, Easterlin (1974) claims that LS remains rather static in spite of rapidly growing
economic output, giving a diagnosis which is still subject to scientific debate
and Wolfers 2008; Easterlin et al. 2010; Veenhoven and Vergunst 2014)
. Among others,
the well-known ‘‘Stiglitz report’’
(Stiglitz et al. 2010)
propose enhancing assessment of the
progress of societies by including subjective indicators about well-being such as LS or
happiness—a recommendation which has been widely adopted by many nations and
international initiatives like Europe’s ‘Beyond GDP’ movement
. However, there is still an ongoing discussion about the significance of subjective
information in general, and about the meaning of LS or happiness ratings in particular
(Angner 2005; Haybron 2008; Schwarz et al. 2008)
Formulations of items can be found in the World Database of Happiness
; the wording ‘‘Taking all things together, how satisfied are you with your life these
days? 0…very dissatisfied, 10… very satisfied.’’ may serve as a typical example. Items of
this kind reach a certain level of stability
(Diener et al. 2013; see also Krueger and
—correlations between two time points of about 0.56
(Fujita and Diener
, 0.67 (Michalos and Kahlke 2010) or 0.77
(Lucas et al. 1996)
after 1 year—and
validity—typically moderate correlations with plausible criteria of a satisfactory life
(Diener et al. 2013; Larsen et al. 1985; Layard 2010; Oswald and Wu 2010)
. Critics refer
to the fundamental problem that a rating about one’s own life involves many hardly
controllable factors, such as different aspiration levels of what constitutes a ‘‘satisfying’’
life. For an overview about different interpretations of responses on LS questions see
Of course, although single-item measures are widely applied, far more sophisticated
measurement tools have been developed, for example the Satisfaction with Life Scale
(Diener et al. 1985)
or panel approaches such as the experience-sampling method
(Kahneman and Krueger 2006). However, the problems presented by this article still
remain as long as the assessment is based on sets of items involving self-rating
In addition to the problem that measured LS may be subject to a lot of moderating
processes, such as adaptation towards positive or negative changes in life, homeostatically
(Tomyn and Cummins 2011)
, self-serving biases and top-down effects
such as downgrading actual negative experience in global hindsight
(cf. Diener et al. 2013)
defense mechanisms, social desirability, different judgment standards,
, context or order effects, and similar
(for an overview, cf. Pavot
2008; OECD 2013b; Diener et al. 2013)
, we want to draw attention to two very
fundamental measurement issues: the actual semantic meaning of ‘‘life satisfaction’’ from the
respondent’s point of view, and the actual semantic meaning of the particular response
categories. Interpreting the notion ‘‘life satisfaction’’ and the meaning of the possible
response levels is typically left to the respondent. Whereas there are sophisticated scientific
definitions describing how researchers understand ‘‘satisfaction’’, the responses are usually
just defined by their numerical positions between two extremes, for example a certain
position between 0 and 10. Veenhoven (2009) had participants from various countries
assign numbers from 0 to 10 to various verbal labels (in their respective languages) to
indicate the level of implied happiness. Slight country differences were observed, such as
‘‘very happy’’ receiving an average rating of 9.0 from the Dutch, but 8.6 from the English
participants. Even if all categories have a verbal anchor, formulations such as ‘‘very
satisfied’’ leave still some room for interpretation. For a discussion about interpretation in
rating scales, see Schwarz et al. 2008.
Diener et al. (2013)
discuss potentially differential
use of the underlying numerical value by different persons, and how this might be dealt
with by robustness analyses or mixed item-response models.
Well-known approaches to tackling the latter issue are the
Cantril ladder (1965
invokes a comparison with the ‘‘best possible life’’, or the usage of anchor vignettes
et al. 2004)
where the respondents rate certain fictitious lives for satisfaction, enabling
comparison of their own lives with the anchors. Neither approach assigns direct
explanations for the absolute quality of a rated level; it still has to be taken as an implicit
assumption that the respondents perceive the question and the grading of possible
responses in a similar way to the professionals. In contrast, instruments like Kahneman’s
and Krueger’s U-Index
(Kahneman and Krueger 2006)
circumvent the anchor problem by
reporting a time percentage (namely, the time spent in a more unpleasant than pleasant
The aforementioned conclusion that most people are happy is subject to essentially the
same problem: what amount (or ‘what level’) of happiness does it indicate? How happy is
‘‘happy’’? Is the statement just another formulation of the numerical fact that average
ratings are to the right of the middle of the scale, or does it express that most people really
live in a desirable psychological state? The cited sources rather suggest that the latter is the
case. In fact, interpreting values to the right of the middle as ‘‘happy’’ assumes that the
respondent’s transition process
(Kim-Prieto et al. 2005; ‘transformation function’ in Ko¨ke
and Perino 2014)
from life perception to self-rating and the researcher’s transformation
function from the response back to a judgment of another person’s life are sufficiently
inverse to each other
(for an overview of the psychology of responding to rating scales, see
again Schwarz et al. 2008; Schwarz and Strack 1999)
. In both cases, a semantic bridge
between the rating and the experienced quality of life is desirable: either to give the term
‘‘happy’’ some psychological content, or to check whether people with responses in the
upper half really enjoy a positive life experience.
Accordingly, the results described in the following will shed some more light on the
actual meaning of happiness ratings, and in particular will provide evidence against
premature interpretations of ‘‘very happy’’ responses as ‘‘top life experience’’.
2 The MODUL Study of Living Conditions
Between April and August 2012, 500 semi-structured interviews were conducted in
German language at 10 different locations in Austria
(Ponocny et al. 2015)
. 27.6 % of
respondents (all aged 16?) were recruited by simple random sampling from telephone
lists, professional marketing address lists, and via local communities. The remaining
participants were recruited through snowball sampling by the randomly sampled
participants, whereby an additional 22.8 % stemmed from the same household, with the
other 49.6 % from new households. Demographic data showed approximate
representativeness of the Austrian adult population regarding age and education, but not for
gender (62.1 % female). Respondents were asked about good and bad things in life by a
total of 12 trained interviewers (psychology graduates), with a typical interview duration
of about 45 min. The aim of the interviews was to cover those aspects which were
important for the evaluation of life from the participant’s point of view. The interview
guidelines contained, among others, the tasks ‘‘Describe good and bad times in your
life’’, ‘‘What is important for your well-being?’’, ‘‘Are there burdens or challenges in
your life?’’, ‘‘What is currently influencing your mood?’’, ‘‘Are there restrictions in your
Like ‘‘light-hearted with minor impairment’’, except that the
objective impairment relates to a central area. However, its
psychological consequences are largely compensated by
coping or positive resources, or restricted to short-term
irregular episodes. This shall also describe persons who master
difficulties in life confidently. It may also express high
acceptance of the challenges posed by life
Plausibly reported happiness with impairment of emotional state
in a central area. Like ‘‘resilient happiness’’, but without full
compensation of negative influences. Negative effects manifest
at least as resignationb or other noticeable, enduring
restrictions of mood (although negative influences do not
outweigh positive ones)
Ambiguity between (credibly reported) strong positive and
negative experience, such as jubilation and aggravation at the
Balanced positive versus negative emotions: ‘‘so-so’’. Credible
reports of positive AND negative experience, but somewhat
dampened (compared to ambiguity). This applies to many
persons who rate their mood as ‘‘neutral’’, ‘‘normal’’, or ‘‘not
good - not bad’’, in a life without marked peaks or lows, or
show resignation. Defense of emotions is likely, in particular
claiming normality (‘‘that’s how it is’’)
Shallow, indifferent or close-lipped. Positive emotions are not
credibly supported by the narrative, but there is also no report
about substantial impairment due to burden
An anchorless, unauthentic life in which desired positive
experience remains unfulfilled (without pronounced negative
experience). Any reports of positive resources are hardly
supported in the narrative, at least in central areas. Reported
burden is likely downplayed. The persons seem to live a life
they would not have chosen, or work towards alternative lives,
without explicit dissatisfaction with concrete issues. Usually
something is ‘‘missing’’, a lack of perspectives is noticeable, or
people are bored and lacking alternatives. A slightly negative,
weary disposition results less from suffering than lack of
satisfaction, and may be manifested as a grumpy tone. Time
poverty due to obligations is possible, while emotional
defenses of downplaying, justifying, rationalizing, denying
more ambitious aspiration or projecting emotions towards
outside stimuli are likely. Persons may judge themselves as
satisfied but not happy
Sad, burdened or stressed, but with positive resources or support.
Persons report that problems impair their mood, with at least
one problem in a central area which is detrimental for the
global mood. Burden is explicitly expressed at least once,
using words such as dissatisfaction, occasional depression,
burden, stress, pain, or similar. Time either lacks due to
obligations or cannot be filled with positive experience.
Persons may struggle to fix some problems or achieve a
targeted goal, such that life is out of balance or unfulfilled. Life
regularly brings negative emotions (grief, sadness, anger,
displeasure, anxiety, sorrows, pain, problems, unmet needs or
desires, quarreling, loneliness, disappointment, boredom, or
lack of self-esteem or self-confidence), unpleasant situations or
torturous thoughts. Symptoms such as sleep disorders,
nervousness, fragility, agitation or irritation are likely to be
reported, possibly accompanied by deprecation of others.
Problems constitute a major part of the interviews or are
mentioned repeatedly, though they may be downplayed or
temporary (e.g. when preparing for an important exam), but
life still has (authentically reported) positive sides and
resources such as family which bring joy to the person
Like the previous, but without support by credibly reported
positive resources. Although impairment does not lead to a
dominantly depressive mood, it seems to outweigh the good
things in life. Resigned or cynical statements are likely, as well
as symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. Life seems
to be a burden, and persons are not looking forward to the
Depressive, clouded, dominantly burdened: a distinctively
negative touch characterizes the interview, persons report
about depression or depressive symptoms, despair,
hopelessness, disappointment or dissatisfaction with life, or the
lack of positive expectations. The category applies to persons
with or without noticeable positive support
a Central areas: core family, partner, children (for young persons: parents); social contacts; work life/
education; way of life, leisure time, time use, self-actualization, time poverty; self-esteem, self confidence;
health (physiological ? psychological), feeling well; spirituality/religion; finances/standard of living;
caregiving; social environment/ecological environment/habitat; housekeeping
b Resignation: Involuntary acceptance of undesirable circumstances, without acute impairment, having ‘‘got
used to’’ something, without fully successful coping (such as deliberately abandoning unrealistic desires
through mature re-evaluation). Giving up a goal, the pursuit of which is realized to be detrimental may serve
as an example
life?’’, and at the end ‘‘Are there issues influential to your well-being which have not
been addressed yet?’’ Almost all interviews took place in the interviewees’ homes and
were audio-recorded and transcribed.
The guidelines for these semi-structured interviews had been probed and improved in
pre-tests on 50 persons. Immediately after the interviews, a 1-page demographic
questionnaire was filled in, which involved the standard questions ‘‘Taking all things together,
how satisfied with your life/how happy are you these days?’’ (in German), with a 10-point
rating between ‘‘very dissatisfied’’ and ‘‘very satisfied’’ or ‘‘very unhappy’’ and ‘‘very
happy’’, respectively. The 10-point scale was chosen in order to be consistent with the
European Quality of Life Survey
. (The German terms were ‘‘zufrieden’’
for ‘‘satisfied’’ and ‘‘glu¨ cklich’’ for ‘‘happy’’.) Presenting the self-rating questions after the
interview made it likely that the responses coincide more closely to the contents of the
narratives than the reverse order, which was desirable for the comparison between verbal
and numerical statements.
The following results section links actual contents of life narratives to subjective
selfratings. An additional illustration is provided by a comparison between the self-ratings
regarding happiness and LS and an alternative classification ‘‘narrated well-being’’
(NWB), for which a total of 13 raters coded their overall impression of the transcribed life
narratives. NWB was developed in an iterative process of trial and error, merging
theoretical expectations with empirical experience.
2.1 The NWB Classification
Since an interview contains manifold qualitative information which is hardly
communicable in a journal paper, a classification scheme was developed in order to
summarize the interviewees’ own evaluative judgments about positive and negative
conditions of their lives. This scheme preserves information about whether
considerable pleasure or displeasure was explicitly expressed by the participants, and
provides a workable characterization of a person’s balance between these experiences.
The different levels of the scheme are verbalized in a way which supports an
interpretation of ‘‘how life is’’ in absolute terms, as independent of individual anchor levels
The starting point was the collection of good and bad circumstances. Numerical
conversions like scaling or counting did not lead to satisfying consistency between
different coders, but experience showed that explicitly considering the authenticity of
emotional expression helped resolve discrepancies between different ratings. Similarly,
explicitly involving coping efforts in the classification removed coding ambiguity
substantially. In the end, a scheme with 11 different levels was considered detailed
enough to assign all 500 cases plausibly, while retaining sufficient distinctiveness
between the levels in terms of their semantic meaning. The resulting scheme is called
the narrative well-being classification (NWB); an overview of its categories is given in
Note that the NWB is not claimed to be an alternative assessment of life satisfaction or
happiness, but an instrument to summarize the occurrence and affective balance of
subjectively evaluated circumstances in a 45 min life narrative. Only aspects which influence
present well-being are considered. It is a formative indicator
(in the meaning of
Diamantopoulos and Winklhofer 2001)
rather than a reflective one, merging heterogeneous
information into a single number, including objective and subjective aspects of well-being.
But it is less quantitative than indexes proposed by
Alkire and Foster (2011)
the number of dimensions in which certain problematic thresholds are exceeded. Certainly,
NWB cannot be considered as a fully objective external rating, but it does ease
communication between researchers and is therefore employed as an illustration tool in the results
A substantial improvement regarding positive NWB ratings has been the
consideration of ‘‘authentic’’ statements which go beyond mere (possibly dissonance-avoiding)
evaluations (such as ‘‘my job is all right’’) but make the appraisal plausible (such as ‘‘I
love what I am doing at work’’). Furthermore, the category ‘‘resilient happiness’’ (3)
helped to classify persons who do well to a certain extent and plausibly describe their life
experience as positive although life burdens them, which means that some life
circumstances are described as unfavorable but the negative effects are largely overcome by
successful coping. Typical examples are informal care-givers who tell about the burdens
of their obligations but on the other hand credibly claim that they have adapted and do
not mind anymore, or elderly people who change their activities according to their
reduced capacities. This corresponds to ‘‘adaptation’’ in
positions—subjective well-being in spite of unfavorable objective conditions. Category (4)
relates to similar situations in which the coping strategies are only partially successful.
Three categories (5)–(7) (which are not considered ordered) characterize ambiguous
narratives with no clear dominance of positive or negative aspects, yet are differentiated
according to the degree of emotion expressed, whereby (7) includes interviews where
people did not talk openly about their emotional experiences, for example by constantly
downplaying them. (8) was introduced for situations where authentic positive experience
reports are lacking, giving the impression of unfulfilled desires as the main impairment
(cf. Zapf’s welfare position ‘‘dissonance’’, dissatisfaction in spite of supportive objective
conditions, or Mc Kennell’s 1978 ‘‘resigned’’, satisfied but not happy)
. The remaining
categories describe narratives with a clearly negative dominance, either still supported by
(but outweighing) positive resources (9), or not (10), with (11) already describing
symptoms of depression or naming it explicitly. According to the feedback during
coding, these categories seem in principle workable, understandable, sufficiently distinct
but nevertheless exhaustive.
The raters marked all circumstances with a reported evaluation and classified the degree
of its influence on the interviewee’s life according to frequency and centrality (the detailed
results are not reported here). All of these highlighted codes and the total interview content
were eventually taken into account to assign a NWB rating. (A version of NWB
suitable for self-rating is currently under preparation.)
It turned out that with sufficient training, inter-rater agreement increased to very
satisfying levels: up to an intra-class-correlation of 0.85. (On the basis of two independent
ratings per case, this would enable a Cronbach’s a reliability of 0.92, qualifying for as a
highly reliable assessment.) The 500 codings which are used here rely on a platform where
12 raters reached an inter-rater agreement of 0.67, which is acceptable for our purposes
(0.40–0.75 may be considered ‘‘fair to good’’)
Fig. 1 Life satisfaction and
happiness self-ratings in the
8 8 4 7 3 4 5 7 2 2 0
4 4 2 3 2 0
1 1 1 5
0 0 0 1 3 0 0 0 0 0 4
0 0 2 1 3 0 0 1 0 0 7
5 7 9 5 6 3 4 0 0 0 9
4 4 6 4 5 0 0 0 0 0 3
4 7 8 4 1 0 0 0 0 0 4
3 6 0 8 1 1 0 2 0 1 2
1 2 2 7
6 6 4 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 8
2 6 0 3 2 0 1 2 1 1 8
3 2 3 9
1 9 2 4 0 0 0 2 1 0 9
3 2 2 8
2 6 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
2 1 4
1 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
‘‘very satisfied’’ (LS) group looks rather heterogeneous, but not like a highly privileged
one. Most interestingly, people who express only small emotions or who are categorized as
‘‘small emotions or close-lipped’’ have a strong tendency to rate themselves as ‘‘10’’,
which gives rise to the suspicion that, for some respondents, positive self-rating might
express defensive response behavior rather than true bliss
(in line with Cummins 2003, as
mentioned in the introduction)
Some of the entries in Table 2 seem quite discrepant, combining rather negative NWB
with very positive self-ratings, or, more seldom, the other way round. Fortunately, contents
of the interviews offer some explanation. Two examples shall be given, one where the
selfrating seems to characterize coping with unfavorable conditions rather than the actual
hedonic status, and one which seems to involve cognitive reappraisal or suppression of
emotional expression which are well-known strategies of emotion regulation
Regarding coping, a female participant (self-rating: 10) continuingly complains about
the double burden of professional work and raising a small child, and was therefore rated as
disharmonious life but with support: She ‘‘still regrets’’ becoming a mother again after an
unplanned pregnancy, in particular missing the more comfortable life she was used to. She
reports frequently being fully exhausted and flipping-out occasionally, but also that she
appreciates the support by her husband and that she takes time for personal recreation
every now and then, ‘‘when I can’t take it anymore and then say: Ok, I have to do
something for myself, or I’ll flake out’’ (translated from German to English). In spite of all
the social support, the case was not rated as ‘‘resilient’’ because the interviewee’s own
words describe her actual emotional reaction to her situation as markedly negative.
The following passage from another interview reveals verbal compliance to obviously
burdensome circumstances (self-rating: 9, NWB: disharmonious life but with support).
Having repeatedly mentioned being burdened by time pressure, the participant responds to
a question about restrictions in life: ‘‘Time pressure, I repeat myself […] It will get better.
And still everything works. It does not knock me out. It is ok as it is. I just hope I continue
to have the strength and health to keep going like that. And, all in all, it is fine. It is fine. [In
German: ‘‘Es passt.’’]’’ To what extent this can be taken as a direct proof of suppressed
emotional expression is debatable, at any rate it strikingly demonstrates substantial
(subjectively reported) impairment which is not detectable in evaluative judgments, verbally as
well as numerically.
This case may also serve as an example of positive life satisfaction not considering
current but rather temporary (or hopefully temporary) stressors, such as for students
writing a thesis or persons longing for a partnership. In another example (self-rating: 9,
NWB: small emotions or close-lipped), the interviewee insists his stressful experiences to
be ‘‘normal’’, which leads to a rationalization setting low standards: After claiming that
stress at work influences his mood, he adds: ‘‘That’s normal, that does not matter’’, and
being asked whether this occurs often: ‘‘No, not really. But there are days, once a week,
where it does. That’s normal. […] There is no job where you do all things right, where
everything is ok. That does not exist. And if somebody says it does, he lies.’’
In the very seldom cases where positive NWB meets very critical self-rating, the
negative self-rating is harder to explain. One case shows a large discrepancy between LS
(1) and happiness (9), maybe suggesting that—in spite of private happiness—she believes
that her current job might only be a transition phase, making it too early to be ‘‘satisfied’’.
In another case (LS and happiness: 2, light-hearted happiness with minor impairment), the
concept of happiness as an unreachable ideal leads to paradoxical statements (‘‘if I would
say I am happy I would most probably be very unhappy’’). However, it is always possible
that crucial issues have simply not been
mentioned in the interview, or that persons
occasionally mixed up the positive and the negative side of the response scales.
To explain why the NWB ratings have been so critical, Tables 3, 4 contrasts positive
and negative life circumstances from the life narratives with self-rated LS values 7–10.
Thereby, only life incidences enter the table for
which the respondents themselves
expressed substantial positive or negative hedonic consequences. Out of those, the most
important ones for the person’s overall hedonic state as judged by the external raters were
selected. The interviews were chosen according to implicit stratification by NWB (and
randomly chosen within the strata) which is indicated on the left-hand side and by the
background shades. Therefore the choice of cases can be regarded as representative for the
LS categories within the sample. Tables 3, 4 clearly show that even extremely positive
+ family, sport, traveling, heritage, takes care for others at work
– has seen bad things during alternative civilian service, politics,
+ good partnership, family, kids, grandchildren, garden/flowers, sports,
going for a walk with the dog, motorbike tour, positivism, health...a)
– menopause (sleep disorder, hot flash), going to be unemployed a
few years before retirement, eye degeneration, financial restrictions
+ family, energy-sapping leadership of school but with pleasure
– dual burden: household and work
+ overall good life, lots of experiences/friends/parties, two kids,
family, partner, garden
– mother's/sister's death, misses recognition as housewife from others
and partner, wants to stay at home - financially not possible as
children’s allowance to be terminated
+ 3 grandchildren after birth of kid at the age of 44, gym, humor
– early death of 1st child, marriage break up, multiple operations
(intervertebral discs, hip...)
+ stronger from things happened in the past, hobbies, natural
– brother suffers from cancer, mother's depressions, worries about
+ army, baby cats, good relationship with mother since
father's death, paragliding
– no good relationship of family with grandmother, stressful
movement to new site
+ visit from son, strong connection to homeland, dog, helps out
people in the surrounding
– parents, husband, sister and youngest son died within last 10 years
+ strength from partner and family, job and education, sport, rural
– father died, lost job/partner, job dissatisfaction, too many foreigners
+ kids, friendship, satisfied with herself
– 17 years horrible marriage, 2nd divorce, husband lives next door, aortic
aneurysma, taking care of mother till death, father's late comeback
from captivity - no real relationship
+ friends, music band
– brother's suicide, best friend died, yearly deaths of friends...b)
+ family, sister, friends, nature
– physical burden, away from home and friends
+ intense partnership while kids are out, appreciating the little things
since taking care of sister and father, parents, siblings...c)
+ job in nursery school, marriage, birth of three kids
– sad to become older, has to wear glasses
+ family, good job climate, soccer, trips to home country, housing
benefit facilitates financial situation, wants to buy own apartment
– war in home country, had to leave family
+ partner, kids, mother
4 – refugee of war, language problems, alone -no parents/friends...d)
3 + weekends without kids, married, healthy, standard of living…e)
– celiac disease, neighbors, atopic dermatitis, two divorces…e)
+ family, friends, quality of life
– annoyed with people who think they are a cut above the rest
+ family, son, grandchildren, skilled manual work, physical health
– surrounding infrastructure
+ finished studies, kids
– abused during childhood, conflicts, missed qualifying examination
for school, low self-esteem in comparison to others, intervertebral
discs operation, back problems, daughter suffered from depression
and anxiety states one year ago, burnout, cumbersome infrastructural
changes from bus to train
+ friends, partner, hobbies, natural surroundings and neighborhood
– not happy with education, lots of work, constructions change
+ animals, good reputation, nature and fresh air
– misses friends after moving, talking about somebody behind one's
back, troubles with mother in law
+ partner, part time job, nice colleagues, makes ends meet quite well
– rich's politics, mother's alcoholism, violent father, brother's suicide,
son in drug scene
+ being at home, garden, talking to mother, motivation gained through
motivation books, house, silence, nature, rural surrounding, neighbors
+ recognition from parents, financial support, good relationship with
– conflict with best friend led to bad school grades, more leisure
time and shopping facilities desired
+ engagement in fire department
– pressure to perform
+ financially secure by heritage, traveling, locality
– won fight against breast cancer
+ place of residence and surroundings, friends, financial situation,
– health problems – avoids going to doctor, mother's death after
taking care of her lead to heritage disputes with brother who had no
contact, became single, joint pain, retirement pay will be better
than unemployment pay
+ bicycle tour
– stress in the workplace
+ birth of daughter, partnership, sports, rural surroundings...f)
– contact with daughter/relationship with daughter's mother...f)
+ faith gives power, psychiatrist helps out with stress and burdens…g)
– takes care of aunt – no holidays, time squeezes, insomnia...g)
a) ? money for holiday, recognition from others, religion, nice place of residence, no problems with
neighbors, participation in communities (choir)
b) - alcohol problem, unemployment, calcification of ligaments
c) ? sports, social contacts, good marriage, kids, feeling healthy
- sister’s death (breast cancer),worries about kids’ future, feels like an elephant compared to other women,
financial restrictions, less time with husband
d) - mother’s cancer, discrimination (no job, problems in finding a flat)
e) ? work in contrast to mother role, surrounding
- struggles with late-born kid due to unintentional pregnancy
f) ? few foreigners (good for kids coming to school)
- 2 month wheel chair (traffic accident), financial/time pressure (self-employment), movement of shops to
shopping centers, crime rate due to immigrants, politics
g) ? enjoys job, friends
- bad experiences with men - one died, compassion with kids
self-ratings do not necessarily indicate highly comfortable life circumstances or
experiences, but may point to considerable harm or suffering. Even respondents with self-ratings
of ‘‘10’’ often report substantial psychological burden, including financial restrictions,
health problems, unemployment, alcoholism, discrimination, death or life-threatening
diseases of close relatives, and sadness. With decreasing self-rating, the NWB rating also
becomes more critical, as expected.
Aggregating NWB categories 1–2, 5–7, and 8–11, the same sample could be described
following Fig. 3: 23 % of respondents are living an authentically happy life without major
problems—light-hearted; 20 % are judged as resilient (coping well in spite of substantial
psychological burden); another 15 % as noticeably impaired but still with positive tenor—
still positive but impaired; a great proportion (28 %) seems rather balanced or close-lipped
regarding positive and negative aspects; and finally for 15 % negative content seems to
dominate the interview—negative balance. We believe that this is an informative, realistic
and workable add-on to diagnoses like Fig. 1 or statements such as ‘‘84 % report one’s
own LS of at least 8’’ or ‘‘the average LS is 8.54’’.
What do these sample results tell us about the real-life meaning of the possible
responses to the ‘‘life satisfaction’’ question? Table 2 suggests a rough translation of the
rating scale values into the NWB scheme in the following manner: 10—‘‘light-hearted with
probably still some impairment, or possibly just close-lipped’’; 8 and 9—‘‘positive but
impaired to a minor or substantial degree, resilient, or ups and downs balanced’’; 7—
‘‘probably balanced, but could be more or less anything’’. For the other infrequently chosen
values, the sample is too small to reliably assign characteristics. The few cases with LS
ratings of 5 or 6 generally show marked negative tendencies in NWB, as is the case for
ratings of 4, but strangely not for ratings of 3 or worse.
Linking the interviews to LS or happiness self-ratings clearly shows that many persons
evaluate their lives very positively, in spite of essential restrictions of their hedonic status
(as narrated by themselves), an effect some researchers do not seem to be fully aware of (in
particular according to feedback the authors received at conferences). Interpreting high
self-ratings as representing highly pleasant psychological states would clearly
underestimate the amount of suffering in the sample. Considering what people actually report in the
interview, some high ratings seem mainly to express that their burden was not worse than
normal, unbearable or as a reason to complain. Additionally, a considerable share of the
cheerful self-evaluations is deemed implausible by external raters who obviously tend to
apply different criteria than the interviewees themselves. Tables 3, 4 contain some
examples of comments from high self-raters which appear contrary to what most people
would consider a good life.
Self-rating versus NWB, and self-reported circumstances (Part II)
Self-rating: 8&7 (Scale: 1 very dissatisfied – 10 very satisfied)
+ friends, own apartment with good access to public transport,
enjoy time on one’s own
– comparison with others, being alone, failed exam, health problems
(toes, spine, joints, chronic bladder infection, bronchitis, asthma)
+ positive health report, new partner after death of former one, kids and
grandchildren, good social system and retirement plan
– need of care, cancer, death of partner who took care...e)
+ family, daughter, education
– war in home country, less money for same job than husband, small
flat – searching for bigger one
+ relatives and friends, former work in nursery school, made peace
with stepparents during their lifetime
– overweight due to frustration, not accepted by stepparents...f)
+ nature and leisure activities
– negative thoughts about deceit of others, stopped education due to
+ family, kids, quality of life in hometown
– too few jobs, settlements away from town, criticizes politics
(nursing care insurance)
– has seen harvester-thresher accident with fire brigade
+ psychological and physiological condition, time with friends and
activities in communities, living in harmony with others, locality
– early death of father/mother/grandmother, no steady partner, only
time for others, impersonal development of others (phone calls,
big supermarkets instead of small ones, opinionated driving style)
– financial troubles, living together with parents, tinnitus, bad job
opportunities due to chosen studies
+ culture, art, literature, music, language studies, talking to friends,
go for a walk, living in green surrounding with kids
– illness of daughter, troublesome partnership, employment…g)
+ contact to kids renewed, let ex-husband off the hook
– mental breakdown, depressions, separation escalated into a wars of
roses, lost contact to kids and conflict
+ child has mutism under control, kids, tai chi gong, go for a walk,
setting up house plan, kids learning musical instrument...h)
– sister's depression-less contact, daughter's mutism-lots of therapies,
because of child care part time job - waits until they are older...h)
+ surrounding and people
– takes care of partner (dementia, often aggressive)
+ physical condition, house for whole family, own car, friends, dogs
– unemployed (mobbed out of last job), dissatisfied, loss of motivation i)
a) ? relationship with stepparents
b) ? positive thinking, beautiful surrounding, relaxed mood compared to former times…b)
c) - overdrawn bank account, public transport options
d) ? curiosity
- arthrosis, minimum pension, conflict with sister, partner’s/mother’s death
e) - meniscus operation failed, bladder and larynge cancer, in wheelchair since feet operation, hometown
and its infrastructure
f) - psychotherapy due to broken contact with kids/grandchildren, dislikes public attention due to partner’s
job, forthcoming carpal canal syndrome operation
g) - situation of husband, often tired, headache, stomachache
h) ? nice people in nursery school, leisure opportunities, sustainable living (bio products, less car rides…)
- no friends in town – housewife, wants to move (rent, commuting, heating costs), only ones who live
sustainably, brothers and sisters do not get along, restrictions because of back problems, no support from
husband due to his job, difficult to get bio products
i) - life often felt meaningless, feeling everything went wrong, no support by others, no positive feedback
To sum up the results in the sample, good ratings should not be misinterpreted by
researchers as indicating lives full of positive emotional experience, at least concerning
some part of the population. Doing so will produce a positivity bias and artificially
overestimate well-being. Contrasting the self-ratings with the NWB scheme, it becomes
evident that only markedly positive ratings (8?) may be taken as clear dominance of
positive over negative aspects, whereby also a part of these raters’ lives is substantially
In principle, these results allow for a wide range of different explanations: (1) A
common understanding of the meaning of the numbers on the self-rating scales exists, but
some of the well-known self-serving biases interfere when it comes to rating one’s own
life. This view is supported by the fact that external raters evaluate systematically more
critically than internal ones, and that many positive LS self-ratings lack plausibility.
Moreover, the interviews contain lots of evidence of downplaying negative circumstances.
In fact, this is observed in about half of the interviews
(Gru¨ nwald 2014)
. (2) There is no
self-serving bias and the numbers fully capture what people feel, but the external
interpretation that ‘‘high rating = top life’’ is too superficial because the transformation
processes life ? self-rating (within the subjective rater) and self-rating ? life (within the
observing researcher) are not sufficiently inverse to each other. Evidence for this or similar
views lies, for example, in the fact that some respondents explained LS (‘‘Zufriedenheit’’ in
German) as specific contentment with material or visible achievements (in contrast to the
inner hedonic level), whereas others considered it just as a modest form of happiness (for
these interviewees, highly rated satisfaction means that a basic happiness level is reached,
but in no way indicates an extreme appraisal). A theoretical framework for the
heterogeneity of happiness concepts across individuals is presented by
It has to be noted that the various interpretations do not necessarily affect SWB
comparisons between groups or trend evaluations, but they strongly affect the interpretation of
absolute levels, as reflected in statements such as ‘‘for most people, everything is ok’’, or,
that ‘‘most people are happy’’. We believe that categorization schemes which better
differentiate between the positive states possess higher relevance for policy. It could even be
detrimental for a society’s progress if official institutions claim that a vast majority is doing
well, as this may downplay the need for political action. Superficial pronouncements of a
population’s well-being may therefore not only be useless but even dangerous.
Are most people happy, after all? Judged from our sample showing the usual positive
self-ratings, a more sophisticated statement is required. Roughly speaking,
comfortable experience seems to outweigh negative experience for a 60 %-majority (only). But it
is also true that about 55 % seem noticeably impaired regarding their hedonic state. And of
the more privileged remaining 45 %, almost half feel well in spite of substantial problems.
These first results strongly suggest that quantitative ratings of SWB need to be evaluated
and interpreted very carefully. Future studies need to confirm these findings, since the
sample cannot be considered fully representative of the Austrian 16? population, much
less for populations in other countries. In particular, it cannot be concluded automatically
that our results may be generalized to other languages than German, or to other cultures.
Thus, the study cannot show how self-ratings work in general. On the other hand, there is
no evidence that the relation between self-rating and life circumstances or the underlying
psychological processes would be completely different for other countries (acknowledging
that the translation of LS and happiness into national languages may create semantic
The fundamental question arises as to whether it is at all possible to validate subjective
life evaluation by external ratings of life narratives. Maybe an interview does not cover the
really relevant aspects of life, or the emotional consequences of a narrated life are not
accessible via external rating (moreover, the external ratings on the traditional 10-point
scale could be negatively biased). Fortunately, there is empirical evidence that the
discrepancy between NWB and self-rated LS does not merely reflect a principle impossibility
of judging a life from outside: for example, in spite of the handicap of being evaluated by
another person, NWB correlated even better to the self-rated item ‘‘living in harmony with
oneself’’ (0.4) than the (also self-rated) LS (0.3). NWB does capture some aspects of
subjective experience, but is far from being identical to the LS question—and should not
be considered less relevant given the results in Tables 3, 4.
In any case, if a lengthy self-report should not provide the basis for a valid impression
about a person’s hedonic state, it is also hard to assume that a few closed responses should.
Note that our results do not at all question the honesty of the individual’s response, but
rather any kind of na¨ıve interpretation of the chosen rating value by an external observer.
Replication of these analyses in languages other than German or in different cultures
would be highly recommendable, as well as additional applications of qualitative
techniques or more sophisticated questionnaires, in order to better find out what respondents
are actually telling us when they rate their lives.
How should SWB assessment improve, consequently? Further development in two
directions is recommended: (1) SWB studies should involve more qualitative information
to lay a more solid fundamental and validated basis for its assessment instruments, and (2)
restricted inventories of question types should be avoided, by moving beyond overall
evaluations of life or life domains to construct new items or response categories with more
explicitly defined content. This approach would also be a step towards more
personoriented research in the meaning of
Bergman and Magnusson (1997)
, acknowledging the
importance of considering many components on the individual level simultaneously. In
fact, the results demonstrate an essential increase of knowledge by involving an
idiographic, qualitative component into the assessment procedure (but still allowing for
Diener and Fujita (1995)
observed on a quantitative level that
resources correlate more closely with SWB if they are deemed more important by the
individual under consideration. Our results also merge well with Kim-Prieto et al.’s (2005)
integrative model for the various stages of the evaluation process, ranging from events and
circumstances, experienced emotions, and recalled emotions to the final global valuation,
whereby personality can play a moderating role on each of the stages, since different
persons experience different events, react and recall differently, and use different criteria
for the global judgment.
The proposed approach would require intense effort (including human resources and
interdisciplinary working teams), of course, and it seems particularly unlikely that national
surveys would include qualitative interviewing, but it should certainly be considered for
supplemental studies. From a scientific point of view, such an approach is substantially
more promising than running an assessment, ranked so highly on the political agenda,
without firm qualitative evidence. A major disaster in SWB research would be that people
do not do well, but researchers fail to recognize. Our results strongly suggest that relying
exclusively on standard self-rating questions will not protect against this danger.
Acknowledgments This research results from a project funded by the Anniversary Fund of the Austrian
National Bank (OeNB), Proj. No. 14399.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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