Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Advancing Wellbeing Research: Would Americans Be Happier If They Lived like Australians?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Advancing Wellbeing Research: Would Americans Be Happier If They Lived like Australians?

Article excerpt


Every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.

--Arthur Schopenhauer

Subjective wellbeing increasingly is recognised as a key indicator of quality of life. Positive psychologists have spent much of the last decade promoting the emotional qualities of subjective wellbeing such as happiness or satisfaction as critical components of good mental health (Seligman et al. 2005). Such emotions may complement--or even provide a credible alternative to--income in national economic measures of social progress (Diener & Seligman 2004; Layard 2005). Many of these studies are limited, however, by their focus on measuring the qualities associated with generalised domains, such as satisfaction with life as a whole, or with work, family or leisure. We argue that these broad assessments miss the variation in emotional experiences associated with daily activities and the consequences for wellbeing when routines change.

Measures of 'emotional wellbeing'--which we define here as the continuous (or hedonic) flow of emotions and enjoyment derived from the activities performed in the specific sequences that fill a day--often provide better indicators of subjective wellbeing than more conventional life-domain measures. Kahneman and Krueger find through experiments and reviews of experimental research (Kahneman et al. 1997, 2006; Krueger & Schkade 2007) that life-domain assessments are over-weighted by extreme and recent experience, and by moods. They observe question-order effects and find indications that life-domain measures asked two weeks apart are less reliable than diaries collecting emotion data alongside time use information (thus capturing emotion in context). Kahneman and Krueger thus distinguish between generalised measures that ask 'How happy/satisfied are you in general?' (Easterlin 1974; Heady & Wearing 1992; Oswald 1997; Helliwell 2003) and hedonic measures that ask 'How much time do you spend doing enjoyable activities?' (Juster & Stafford 1985; Robinson & Godbey 1997; Kahneman & Krueger 2006; Gershuny 2011), and they emphasise the importance of the latter measures.

A growing number of researchers in the field of time diary surveys have started to collect data on emotions. These studies capture the range and frequency of the daily activities that take place across a society, and situate emotional responses in the contexts that shape these emotions (Kahneman & Krueger 2006; Gershuny 2012; Koll & Pokutta 2012). This approach has the analytical benefit of increasing the variability of responses, in that the metric used is much wider than a single 10-point scale of happiness, and it also captures data on location, co-presence and enjoyment based over 1,440 minutes per day. When conducted on a national scale, time and emotion diary surveys form a useful compendium of measures of the subjective wellbeing of nations, complementing national income and production measures (Kahneman & Krueger 2006; Gershuny 2012; Koll & Pokutta 2012). They allow analysis of variations in wellbeing across countries and regions resulting from local policy settings that impact time-schedules, such as business or school or service opening times, labour laws, child support arrangements, transportation and service availability.

Time diary and affect measures also offer a unique opportunity to address a dilemma concerning assessing the unintended consequences of making policies. Daily activities take place in cycles bounded by the biological needs, cultural conventions, and social structures of communities and nations. Policies that change one element of behaviour may have unintended consequences for other aspects of daily life. For example, policies aimed at reducing time spent commuting can open space in daily schedules that people can fill with other activities which could be generally perceived as 'positive' (for example, exercise) or 'negative' (for example, watching television). …

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