Category Archives: Wellbeing

Are Positive Illusions Really Good for You?

With 4,366 citations in WebOfScience, Taylor and Brown’s article “ILLUSIONS AND WELL-BEING: A SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON MENTAL-HEALTH” is one of the most cited articles in social psychology.

The key premises of the article is that human information processing is faulty and that mistakes are not random. Rather human information processing is systematically biased.

Taylor and Brown (1988) quote Fiske and Taylor’s (1984) book about social cognitions to support this assumption. “Instead of a naïve scientist entering the environment in search of the truth, we find the rather unflattering picture of a charlatan trying to make the data come out in a manner most advantageous to his or her already-held theories” (p. 88). 

30 years later, a different picture emerges. First, evidence has accumulated that human information processing is not as faulty as social psychologists assumed in the early 1980s. For example, personality psychologists have shown that self-ratings of personality have some validity (Funder, 1995). Second, it has also become apparent that social psychologists have acted like charlatans in their research articles, when they used questionable research practices to make unfounded claims about human behavior. For example, Bem (2011) used these methods to show that extrasensory perception is real. This turned out to be a false claim based on shoddy use of the scientific method.

Of course, a literature with thousands of citations also has produced a mountain of new evidence. This might suggest that Taylor and Brown’s claims have been subjected to rigorous tests. However, this is actually not the case. Most studies that examined the benefits of positive illusions relied on self-ratings of well-being, mental-health, or adjustment to demonstrate that positive illusions are beneficial. The problem is evident. When self-ratings are used to measure the predictor and the criterion, shared method variance alone is sufficient to produce a positive correlation. The vast majority of self-enhancement studies relied on this flawed method to examine the benefits of positive illusions (see meta-analysis by Dufner, Gebauer, & Sedikides, 2019).

However, there are a few attempts to demonstrate that positive illusions about the self predict well-being measures is measured by informant ratings to reduce the influence of shared method variance. The most prominent example is Taylor et al. (2003) article ” Portrait of the self-enhancer: Well adjusted and well liked or maladjusted and friendless.”
[Sadly, this was published in the Personality section of JPSP]

The abstract gives the impression that the results clearly favored Taylor’s positive illusions model. However, a closer inspection of reality shows that the abstract is itself illusory and disconnected from reality.

First, the study had a small sample size (N = 92). Second, only about half of these participants . Informant ratings were obtained from a single friend, but only 55 participants identified a friend who provided informant ratings. Even in 2003, it was common to use larger samples and more informants to measure well-being (e.g., Schimmack, & Diener, 2003). Moreover, friends are not as good as family members to report on well-being (Schneider & Schimmack, 2009). It only attests to Taylor’s social power that such a crappy, underpowered study was published in JPSP.

The results showed no significant correlations between various measures of positive illusions (self-enhancement) and peer-ratings of mental health (last row).

Thus, the study provided no evidence for the claim in the abstract that positive illusions about the self predict well-being or mental health without the confound of shared method variance.

Meta-Analysis

Dufner, Gebauer, Sedikides, and Denissen (2019) conducted a meta-analysis of the literature. The abstract gives the impression that there is a clear positive effect of positive illusions on well-being.

Not surprisingly, studies that used self-ratings of adjustment/well-being/mental health showed positive association. The more interesting question is how self-enhancement measures are related to non-self-report measures of well-being. Table 3 shows that the meta-analysis identified 22 studies with an informant-rating of well-being and that these studies showed a small positive relationship, r = .12.

I was surprised that the authors found 22 studies because my own literature research uncovered fewer studies. So, I took a closer look at the 22 studies included in the meta-analysis (see APPENDIX).

Many of the studies relied on measures of social desirable responding (Marlow-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, Balanced -Inventory-of-Desirable Responding) as a measure of positive illusions. The problem with these studies is that social desirability scales also contain a notable portion of real personality variance. Thus, these studies do not conclusively demonstrate that illusions are related to informant ratings of adjustment. Paulhus’s studies are problematic because adjustment ratings were based on first-impressions in a zero-acquaintance relationship, and the results changed over time. Self-enhancers were perceived as better adjusted in the beginning, but as less adjusted later on. The problem here is that well-being ratings in this context have low validity. Finally, most studies were underpowered given the estimated population effect size of r = .12. The only reasonably powered study by Church et al. with 900 participants produced a correlation of r = .17 with an unweighted measure and r = .08 with a weighted measure. Overall, this evidence does not provide clear evidence that positive illusions about the self have positive effects. They actually show that any beneficial effects would be small.

New Evidence

In a forthcoming JRP article, Hyunji Kim and I present the most comprehensive test of Taylor’s positive illusion hypothesis (Schimmack & Kim, 2019). We collected data from 458 triads (students with both biological parents living together). We estimated separate models for students, mothers, and fathers as targets. In each model, targets self-ratings of the Big Five personality ratings were modelled with the halo-alpha-beta model, where the halo factor represents positive illusions about the self (Anusic et al., 2009). The halo factor was then allowed to predict the shared variance in well-being ratings by all three raters, and well-being ratings were based on three indicators (global life-satisfaction, average domain satisfaction, and hedonic balance, cf. Zou, Schimmack, & Gere, 2013).

The structural equation model is shown in Figure 1. The complete data, MPLUS syntax and output files and a preprint of the article are available on OSF ( https://osf.io/6z34w/).

The key findings are reported in Table 6. There were no significant relationships between self-rated halo bias and the shared variance among ratings of well-being across the three raters. Although this finding does not prove that positive illusions are not beneficial, the results suggest that it is rather difficult to demonstrate these benefits even in reasonably powered studies to detect moderate effect sizes.

The study did replicate much stronger relationships with self-ratings of well-being. However, this finding begs the question whether positive illusions are beneficial only in ways that are not visible to close others or whether these relationships simply reflect shared method variance.

Conclusion

Over 30 years ago, Taylor and Brown made the controversial proposal that humans benefit from distorted perceptions of reality. Only this year, a meta-analysis claimed that there is strong evidence to support this claim. I argue that the evidence in support of the illusion model is itself illusory because it rests on studies that relate self-ratings to self-ratings. Given the pervasive influence of rating biases on self-ratings, shared method variance alone is sufficient to explain positive correlations in these studies (Campbell & Fiske, 1959). Only a few studies have attempted to address this problem by using informant ratings of well-being as an outcome measure. These studies tend to find weak relationships that are often not significant. Thus, there is currently no scientific evidence to support Taylor and Brown’s social psychological perspective on mental health. Rather, the literature on positive illusions provides further evidence that social and personality psychologists have been unable to subject the positive illusions hypothesis to a rigorous test. To make progress in the study of well-being it is important to move beyond the use of self-ratings to reduce the influence of method variance that can produce spurious correlations among self-report measures.

APPENDIX

Article#TitleStudy InformantsNSRIR
1Do Chinese Self-Enhance or Self-Efface?
It’s a Matter of Domain
1Table 4helpfulnessneuroticism1300.480.01
2How self-enhancers adapt well to loss: the mediational role of loneliness and social functioning1BIDR-SDSR symptoms (reversed) / IR mental health570.240.34
3Portrait of the self- enhancer:Well- adjusted and well- liked or maladjusted and friendless?1
4Social Desirability Scales: More Substance Than Style1Table 2MCSDdepression (reversed)2150.490.31
5Substance and bias in social desirability responding.12 FriendsTable 2SDEneuroticism (reversed)670.390.26
6Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing1aZero-AquaintanceTable 2 Time 1Trait SEAdjustment124NA0.36
6Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing1bZero-AquaintanceTable 2 Time 2Trait SEAdjustment124NA-0.11
6Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing2Zero-AquaintanceTable 4 Time 1Trait SEAdjustment89NA0.35
6Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing2Zero-AquaintanceTable 4 Time 1Trait SEAdjustment89NA-0.22
7A test of the construct validity of the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory11 PeerTable 1FFNI VulnerabilityNeuroticism2870.50.33
8Moderators of the adaptiveness of self-enhancement: Operationalization, motivational domain, adjustment facet, and evaluator13 Peers/Family MembersSelf-ResidualsAdjustment1230.22-0.2
9Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism: A Nomological Network Analysis1NANA
10Socially desirable responding in personality assessment: Still more substance than style1a1 RoommateTable 1MCSDneuroticism (reversed)1280.410.06
10Socially desirable responding in personality assessment: Still more substance than style1bParentsTable 1MCSDneuroticism (reversed)1280.410.09
11Two faces of human happiness: Explicit and implicit life-satisfaction1a1 PeerTable 1BIDR-SDPANAS1590.450.17
11Two faces of human happiness: Explicit and implicit life-satisfaction1b1 PeerTable 1BIDR-SDLS1590.36-0.03
12Socially desirable responding in personality assessment: Not necessarily faking and not necessarily substance11 roommateTable 2BIDR-SDneuroticism (reversed)6020.260.02
13Depression and the chronic pain experience1noneMCSDNANA
14Trait self-enhancement as a buffer against potentially traumatic events: A prospective study1FriendsTable 5BIDR-SDmental health32NA-0.01
15Big Tales and Cool Heads: Academic Exaggeration Is Related to Cardiac Vagal Reactivity162NANA
16Are Actual and Perceived Intellectual Self-enhancers Evaluated Differently bySocial Perceivers?11 FriendTable 1 / above diagonalSE intelligenceneuroticism (reversed)3370.170.15
16Are Actual and Perceived Intellectual Self-enhancers Evaluated Differently bySocial Perceivers?3Zero-AquaintanceTable 1 / below diagonalSE intelligenceneuroticism (reversed)1830.190.38
17Response artifacts in the measurement of subjective well-being17 friends / familyTable 1MCSDLS1080.30.36
18A Four-Culture Study of Self-Enhancement and Adjustment Using the1a6 friends/ familyTable 6 SRM unweightedSRMLS9000.530.17
18A Four-Culture Study of Self-Enhancement and Adjustment Using the1b6 friends/ familyTable 6 SRM weightedSRMLS9000.490.08
19You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation1NANA
20What Does the Narcissistic Personality Inventory Really Measure?4RoommatesNPI-GrandioseCollege Adjustment2000.480.27
21Self-enhancement as a buffer against extreme adversity: Civil war in Bosnia and traumatic loss in the United States1Mental Health ExpertsSelf-Peer Disadjustment difficulties (reversed)780.470.27
21Self-enhancement as a buffer against extreme adversity: Civil war in Bosnia and traumatic loss in the United States2Mental Health ExpertsTable 2  25 monthsBIDR-SDself distress / MHE PTSD740.30.35
22Self-enhancement among high-exposure survivors of the September 11th terrorist attack: Resilience or social maladjustment1Friend/FamilyBIDR-SDself depression 18 months / mental health450.290.33
23Decomposing a Sense of Superiority: The Differential Social Impact of Self-Regard and Regard for Others1Zero-AquaintanceSRMneuroticism (reversed)235NA0.02
24Personality, Emotionality, and Risk Prediction194NANA
24Personality, Emotionality, and Risk Prediction2119NANA
25Social desirability scales as moderator and suppressor variables1MCSD300NANA

The Pie Of Happiness

This blog post reports the results of an analysis that predicts variation in scores on the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al., 1985) from variation in satisfaction with life domains. A bottom-up model predicts that evaluations of important life domains account for a substantial amount of the variance in global life-satisfaction judgments (Andrews & Withey, 1976). However, empirical tests of this prediction fail to show this (Andrews & Withey, 1976).

Here I used the data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) well-being supplement in 2016. The analysis is based on 8,339 respondents. The sample is the largest national representative sample with the SWLS, although only respondents 30 or order are included in the survey.

The survey also included Cantril’s ladder, which was included in the model, to identify method variance that is unique to the SWLS and not shared with other global well-being measures. Andrews & Withey found that about 10% of the variance is unique to a specific well-being scale.

The PSID-WB module included 10 questions about specific life domains: house, city, job, finances, hobby, romantic, family, friends, health, and faith. Out of these 10 domains, faith was not included because it is not clear how atheists answer a question about faith.

The problem with multiple regression is that shared variance among predictor variables contributes to the explained variance in the criterion variable, but the regression weights do not show this influence and the nature of the shared variance remains unclear. A solution to this problem is to model the shared variance among predictor variables with structural equation modeling. I call this method Variance Decomposition Analysis (VDA).

MODEL 1

Model 1 used a general satisfaction (GS) factor to model most of the shared variance among the nine domain satisfaction judgments. However, a single factor model did not fit the data, indicating that the structure is more complex. There are several ways to modify the model to achieve acceptable fit. Model 1 is just one of several plausible models. The fit of model 1 was acceptable, CFI = .994, RMSEA = .030.

Model 1 used two types of relationships among domains. For some domain relationships, the model assumes a causal influence of one domain on another domain. For other relationship, it is assumed that judgments about the two domains rely on overlapping information. Rather than simply allowing for correlated residuals, this overlapping variance was modelled as unique factors with constrained loadings for model identification purposes.

Causal Relationships

Financial satisfaction (D4) was assumed to have positive effects on housing (D1) and job (D3). The rational is that income can buy a better house and pay satisfaction is a component of job satisfaction. Financial satisfaction was also assumed to have negative effects on satisfaction with family (D7) and friends (D8). The reason is that higher income often comes at a cost of less time for family and friends (work-life balance/trade-off).

Health (D9) was assumed to have positive effects on hobbies (D5), family (D7), and friends (D8). The rational was that good health is important to enjoy life.

Romantic (D6) was assumed to have a causal influence on friends (D8) because a romantic partner can fulfill many of the needs that a friend can fulfill, but not vice versa.

Finally, the model includes a path from job (D3) to city (D2) because dissatisfaction with a job may be attributed to few opportunities to change jobs.

Domain Overlap

Housing (D1) and city (D2) were assumed to have overlapping domain content. For example, high house prices can lead to less desirable housing and lower the attractiveness of a city.

Romantic (D6) was assumed to share content with family (D7) for respondents who are in romantic relationships.

Friendship (D8) and family (D7) were also assumed to have overlapping content because couples tend to socialize together.

Finally, hobby (D5) and friendship (D8) were assumed to share content because some hobbies are social activities.

Figure 2 shows the same figure with parameter estimates.

The most important finding is that the loadings on the general satisfaction (GS) factor are all substantial (> .5), indicating that most of the shared variance stems from variance that is shared across all domain satisfaction judgments.

Most of the causal effects in the model are weak, indicating that they make a negligible contribution to the shared variance among domain satisfaction judgments. The strongest shared variances are observed for romantic (D6) and family (D7) (.60 x .47 = .28) and housing (D1) and city (D2) (.44 x .43 = .19).

Model 1 separates the variances of the nine domains into 9 unique variances (the empty circles next to each square) and five variances that represent shared variances among the domains (GS, D12, D67, D78, D58). This makes it possible to examine how much the unique variances and the shared variances contribute to variance in SWLS scores. To examine this question, I created a global well-being measurement model with a single latent factor (LS) and the SWLS items and the Ladder measures as indicators. The LS factor was regressed on the nine domains. The model also included a method factor for the five SWLS items (swlsmeth). The model may look a bit confusing, but the top part is equivalent to the model already discussed. The new part is that all nine domains have a causal error pointing at the LS factor. The unusual part is that all residual variances are named, and that the model includes a latent variable SWLS, which represents the sum score of the five SWLS items. This makes it possible to use the model indirect function to estimate the path from each residual variance to the SWLS sum score. As all of the residual variance are independent, squaring the total path coefficients yields the amount of variance that is explained by a residual and the variances add up to 1.

GS has many paths leading to SWLS. Squaring the standardized total path coefficient (b = .67) yields 45% of explained variance. The four shared variances between pairs of domains (d12, d67, d78, d58) yield another 2% of explained variance for a total of 47% explained variance from variance that is shared among domains. The residual variances of the nine domains add up to 9% of explained variance. The residual variance in LS that is not explained by the nine domains accounts for 23% of the total variance in SWLS scores. The SWLS method factor contributes 11% of variance. And the residuals of the 5 SWLS items that represent random measurement error add up to 11% of variance.

These results show that only a small portion of the variance in SWLS scores can be attributed to evaluations of specific life domains. Most of the variance stems from the shared variance among domains and the unexplained variance. Thus, a crucial question is the nature of these variance sources. There are two options. First, unexplained variance could be due to evaluations of specific domains and shared variance among domains may still reflect evaluations of domains. In this case, SWLS scores would have high validity as a global measure of subjective evaluations of domains. The other possibility is that shared variance among domains and unexplained variance reflects systematic measurement error. In this case, SWLS scores would have only 6% valid variance if they are supposed to reflect global evaluations of life domains. The problem is that decades of subjective well-being research have failed to provide an empirical answer to this question.

Model 2: A bottom-up model of shared variance among domains

Model 1 assumed that shared variance among domains is mostly produced by a general factor. However, a general factor alone was not able to explain the pattern of correlations and additional relationships were added to the model Model 2 assume that shared variance among domains is exclusively due to causal relationships among domains. Model fit was good, CFI = .994, RMSEA = .043.

Although the causal network is not completely arbitrary, it is possible to find alternative models. More important, the data do not distinguish between Model 1 and Model 2. Thus, the choice of a causal network or a general factor is arbitrary. The implication is that it is not clear whether 47% of the variance in SWLS scores reflect evaluations of domains or some alternative, top-down, influence.

This does not mean that it is impossible to examine this question. To test these models against each other, it would be necessary to include objective predictors of domain (e.g., income, objective health, frequency of sex, etc.) in the model. The models make different predictions about the relationship of these objective indicators to the various domain satisfactions. In addition, it is possible to include measures of systematic method variance (e.g., halo bias) or predictors of top-down effects (e.g., neuroticism) in the model. Thus, the contribution of domain-specific evaluations to SWLS scores is an empirical question.

Conclusion

It is widely assumed that the SWLS is a valid measure of subjective well-being and that SWLS scores reflect a summary of evaluations of specific life domains. However, regression analyses show that only a small portion of the variance in global well-being judgments is explained by unique variance in domain satisfaction judgments (Andrews & Withey, 1976). In fact, most of the variance stems from the shared variance among domain satisfaction judgments (Model 1). Here I show that it is not clear what this shared variance represents. It could be mostly due to a general factor that reflects internal dispositions (e.g., neuroticism) or method variance (halo bias), but it could also result from relationships among domains in a complex network of interdependence. At present it is unclear how much top-down and bottom-up processes contribute to shared variance among domains. I believe that this is an important research question because it is essential for the validity of global life-satisfaction measures like the SWLS. If respondents are not reflecting about important life domains when they rate their overall well-being, these items are not measuring what they are supposed to measure; that is, they lack construct validity.

Construct Validity of the Satisfaction with Life Scale

With close to 10,000 citations in WebofScience, Ed Diener’s article that introduced the “Satisfaction with Life Scale” (SWLS) is a citation classic in well-being science. While single-item measures are used in large national representative surveys (e.g., General Social Survey, German Socio-Economic Panel, World Value Survey), psychologists prefer multi-item scales because they have higher reliability and therewith also higher validity.

Study 1 in Diener et al. (1985) demonstrated that the SWLS shows convergent validity with single-item measures like Cantril’s ladder, r = .62, .66), and Andrews and Withey’s Delighted-Terrible scale, r = .68, .62. Attesting to the higher reliability of the 5-item SWLS is the finding that the internal consistency was .87 and the retest reliability was r = .82. These results suggest that the SWLS and single-item measures measure a single construct with different amounts of random measurement error.

The important question for well-being scientists who use the SWLS and other global well-being measures is whether these items measure what they are intended to measure. To answer this question, we need to know what life-satisfaction measures are intended to measure.

Diener et al. (1985) draw on Andrews and Withey’s (1976) model of well-being perceptions. Accordingly, life-satisfaction judgments are based on subjective evaluations of important concerns.

Judgments of satisfaction are dependent upon a comparison of one’s circumstances with what is thought to be an appropriate standard. It is important to point out that the judgment of how satisfied people are with their present state of affairs is based on a comparison with a standard which each individual sets for him· or herself; it is not externally imposed. It is a hallmark of the subjective well-being area that it centers on the person’s own judgments, not upon some criterion which is judged to be important by the researcher (Diener, 1984).

This definition of life-satisfaction makes two important points. First, it is assumed that respondents are thinking about their circumstances when they judge their life-satisfaction. That is, we we can think about life-satisfaction as an attitude with an individual’s life as the attitude object. Just like individuals are assumed to think about the important features of Coca Cola when they are asked to report their attitudes towards Coca Cola, respondents are assumed to think about the important features of their lives, when they report their attitudes towards their lives.

The second part of the definition makes it clear that attitudes towards lives are based on subjectively chosen criteria to evaluate lives. Just like individuals may like the taste of Coke or dislike the taste of Coke, the same life circumstance can be evaluated differently by different individuals. Some may be extremely satisfied with an income of $100,000 and some may be extremely dissatisfied with the same income. For students, some students may be happy with a GPA of 2.9, others may be unhappy with the same GPA. The reason is that the evaluation criteria or standards can very across individuals and that there is no objective criterion that is used to evaluate life circumstances. This makes life-satisfaction judgments an indicator of subjective well-being.

The reliance on subjective evaluation criteria also implies that individuals can give different weights to different life domains. For some people, family life may be the most important domain, for others it may be work (Andrews & Withey, 1976). The same point is made by Diener et al. (1985).

For example, although health, energy, and so forth may be desirable, particular individuals may place different values on them. It is for this reason that ,we need to ask the person for their overall evaluation of their life, rather than summing across their satisfaction with specific domains, to obtain a measure of overall life-satisfaction (p. 71).

This point makes sense. If life-satisfaction judgments on evaluations of life circumstances and individuals place different emphasis on different life domains, more important domains should have a stronger influence on global life-satisfaction judgments (Schimmack, Diener, & Oishi, 2002). However, starting with Andrews and Withey (1976), empirical tests of this prediction have failed to confirm it. When individuals are asked to rate the importance of life domains, and these weights are used to compute a weighted average, the weighted average is not a better predictor of global judgments than a simple unweighted average (Rohrer & Schmukle, 2018).

Although this fact has been known since 1974, its theoretical significance has been ignored. There are two possible interpretations of this finding. On the one hand, it could be that importance ratings are invalid. That is, people don’t really know what is important to them and the actual importance is best revealed by the regression weights when global life-satisfaction ratings are regressed on domain satisfaction either across participants or within-participants over time. The alternative explanation is more troubling. In this case, global life-satisfaction judgments are invalid. Maybe these judgments are not based on subjective evaluations of life-circumstances.

Schwarz and Strack (1999) made the point that global life-satisfaction judgments are based on quick heuristics that produce invalid information. The problem of their criticism is that they focused on unstable sources such as mood or temporarily accessible information as the main sources of life-satisfaction judgments. This model fails to explain the high temporal stability of life-satisfaction judgments. (Schimmack & Oishi, 2005).

However, it is possible that stable factors produce systematic method variance in life-satisfaction judgments. For example, Andrews and Withey (1976) suggested that halo bias could influence ratings of domain satisfaction and life-satisfaction. They used informant ratings to rule out this possibility, but their test of this hypothesis was statistically flawed (Schimmack, 2019). Thus, it is possible that a substantial portion of the reliable variance in SWLS scores is halo bias.

Diener et al. (1985) tried to address the problem of systematic measurement error in two ways. First, they included the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability (MCSD) scale to measure social desirable responding and found no correlation with SWLS scores, r = .02. The problem is that the MCSD is not a valid measure of socially desriable responding or halo bias, but rather a measure of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Thus, the correlation is better interpreted as evidence that life-satisfaction is fairly independent of these personality traits. Second, Study 3 with 53 elderly residents of Urbana-Champaign included an interview with two trained interviewers. Afterwards, the interviewers made ratings of the interviewees’ well-being. The averaged interviewer’ ratings correlated r = .43 with the self-ratings of well-being. The problem here is that individuals who are motivated to present a positive image in their SWLS ratings are also likely to present a positive image in an interview. Moreover, the conveyed sense of well-being could reflect individuals’ personality more than their life-circumstances. Thus, it is not clear how much of the agreement between self-ratings and interviewer-ratings reflects evaluations of actual life-circumstances.

The most recent review article by Ed Diener was published last year; “Advances and Open Questions in the Science of Subjective Well-Being” (Diener, Lucas, & Oishi, 2018). The article makes it clear that the construct has not changed since 1985.

Subjective well-being (SWB) reflects an overall evaluation of the quality of a person’s life from her or his own perspective” (p. 1).

As the term implies, SWB refers to the extent to which a person believes or feels that his or her life is going well. The descriptor “subjective” serves to define and limit the scope of the construct: SWB researchers are interested in evaluations of the quality of a person’s life from that person’s own perspective.” (p. 2)

The authors also explicitly state that subjective well-being measures are subjective because individuals can focus on different aspects of their lives depending on their importance to them.

it is the subjective nature of the construct that gives it its power. This is due to the fact that different people likely weight different objective circumstances differently depending on their goals, their values, and even their culture” (p. 3).

The fact that global measures allow individuals to assign different weights to different domains is seen as a strength.

Presumably, subjective evaluations of quality of life reflect these idiosyncratic reactions to objective life circumstances in ways that alternative approaches (such as the objective list
approach) cannot. Thus, when evaluating the impact of events, interventions, or public-policy decisions on quality of life, subjective evaluations may provide a better mechanism for assessment than alternative, objective approaches
(p. 3).

The problem is that this claim requires empirical evidence to show that global life-satisfaction judgments are indeed more valid measures of subjective well-being than simple averages because they properly weigh information in accordance with individuals’ subjective preferences, and since 1976 this evidence has been lacking.

Diener et al.’s (2018) review glosses over this glaring problem for the construct validity of the SWLS and other global well-being measures.

Because most measures are simple self-reports, considerable research addresses the psychometric properties of these types of assessments. This research consistently shows that existing self-report measures exhibit strong psychometric properties including high internal consistency when multiple-item measures are used; moderately strong test-retest reliability, especially over short periods of time; reasonable convergence with alternative measures (especially those that have also been shown to have high levels of reliability and validity); and theoretically meaningful patterns of associations with other constructs and criteria (see Diener et al., 2009, and Diener, Inglehart, & Tay, 2013, for reviews). There is little debate about the quality of SWB measures when evaluated using these traditional criteria.

While it is true that there is little debate, this does not mean that there is strong evidence for the construct validity of the SWLS. The open question is how much respondents are really conducting a memory search for information about important life domains, evaluate these domains based on subjective criteria, and then report an overall summary of these evaluations. If so, subjective importance weights should improve predictions, but they often do not. Moreover, in regression models individual life domains often contribute small amounts of unique variance (Andrews & Withey, 1976), and some important aspects like health often account for close to zero percent of the variance in life-satisfaction judgments.

Convergent Validity

One key feature of construct validity is convergent validity between two independent methods that measure the same construct (Campbell & Fiske, 1959). Ideally, multiple methods are used and it is possible to examine whether the pattern of correlations matches theoretical predictions (Cronbach & Meehl, 1955; Schimmack, 2019). Diener et al. (2018) mention some evidence of convergent validity.

For example, Schneider and Schimmack (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of the correlation between self and informant reports, and they found that there is reasonable agreement (r = .42) between these two methods of assessing SWB.

The problem with this evidence is that the correlation between two measures only shows that both methods are valid, but it is not possible to quantify the amount of valid variance in self-ratings or informant ratings, which requires at least three methods (Andrews & Withey, 1976; Zou, Schimmack, & Gere, 2013). Theoretically, it would be possible that most of the variance in self-ratings is valid and that informant ratings are rather invalid. This is what Andrews and Withey (1976) claimed with estimates of 65% valid variance in self-ratings and 15% valid variance in informant ratings, with a correlation of r = .32. However, their model was incorrect and allowed for method variance in self-ratings to inflate the factor loading of self-ratings.

Zou et al. (2013) avoided this problem by using self-ratings and ratings by two informants as independent methods and found no evidence that self-ratings are more valid than informant ratings; a finding that is mirrored in ratings of personality traits (Anusic et al., 2009). Thus, a correlation of r = .3, implies that 30% of the variance in self-ratings is valid and 30% of the variance in informant ratings is valid.

While this evidence shows that self-ratings of life-satisfaction show convergent validity with informant ratings, it also shows that a substantial portion of the reliable variance in self-ratings is not shared with informants. Moreover, it is not clear what information produces agreement between self-ratings and informant ratings. This question has received surprisingly little attention, although it is critical for the construct validity of life-satisfaction judgments. Two articles have examined this question with opposite conclusions. Schneider and Schimmack (2010) found some evidence that satisfaction in important life domains contributed to self-informant agreement. This finding would support the bottom-up model of well-being judgments that raters are actually considering life circumstances when they make well-being judgments. In contrast, Dobewall, Realo, Allik, Esko, andMetspalu (2013) proposed that personality traits like depression and cheerfulness accounted for self-informant agreement. In this case, informants do not need ot know anything about life circumstances. All they need to know is whether an individual has a positive or negative lens to evaluate their lives. If informants are not using information about life circumstances, they cannot be used to validate self-ratings to show that self-ratings are based on evaluations of life circumstances.

Diener et al. (2018) cite a number of additional findings as evidence of convergent validity.

Physiological measures, including brain activity (Davidson, 2004) and hormones (Buchanan, al’Absi, & Lovallo, 1999), along with behavioral measures such as the amount of smiling (e.g., Oettingen & Seligman, 1990; Seder & Oishi, 2012) and patterns of online behaviors (Schwartz, Eichstaedt, Kern, Dziurzynski, Agrawal et al., 2013) have also been used to assess SWB. (p. 7).

This evidence has several limitations. First, hormones do not reflect evaluations and are at best indirectly related to life-evaluations. Asymmetries in prefrontal brain activity (Davidson, 2004) have been shown to reflect approach and avoidance motivation more than pleasure and displeasure, and brain activity is a better measure of momentary states than the evaluation of fairly stable life circumstances. Finally, they also may reflect individuals’ personality more than their life circumstances. The same is true for the behavioral measures. Most important, correlations with a single indicators do not provide information about the amount of valid variance in life-satisfaction judgments. To quantify validity it is necessary to examine these findings within a causal network (Schimmack, 2019).

Diener et al. (2019) agree with my assessment in their final conclusions about measurement of subjective well-being.

The first (and perhaps least controversial) is that many open questions remain
regarding the associations among different SWB measures and the extent to which these measures map on to theoretical expectations; therefore, understanding how the measures relate and how they diverge will continue to be one of the most important goals of research in the area of SWB. Although different camps have emerged that advocate for one set of measures over others, we believe that such advocacy is premature. More research is needed about the strengths, weaknesses, and relative merits of the various approaches to measurement that we have documented in this review
(p. 7).

The problem is that well-being scientists have made no progress on this front since Andrews and Withey (1976) conducted the first thorough construct validation studies. The reason is that social and personality psychology suffers from a validation crisis (Schimmack, 2019). Researchers simply assume that measures are valid rather than testing it or they use necessary, but insufficient criteria like internal consistency (alpha), retest reliability as evidence. Moreover, there is a tendency to ignore inconvenient findings. As a result, 40 years after Andrews and Withey’s (1976) seminal article was published, it remains unclear (a) whether respondents aggregate information about important life domains to make global judgments, (b) how much of the variance in life-satisfaction judgments is valid, and (c) which factors produce systematic biases in life-satisfaction judgments that may lead to false conclusions about the causes of life-satisfaction and to false policy recommendations.

Health is probably the best example to illustrate the importance of valid measurement of subjective well-being. It makes intuitive sense that health has an influence on well-being. Illness often disables individuals from pursuing their goals and enjoying life as everybody who had the flu knows. Diener et al. (2018) agree.

“One life circumstance that might play a prominent role in subjective well-being is a person’s health” (p. 15).

It is also difficult to see how there could be dramatic individual differences in the criteria that are used to evaluate health. Sure, fitness levels may be a matter of personal preference, but nobody is enjoying a stroke, heart attack, or cancer, or even having the flu.

Thus, it was a surprising finding that health seemed to have a small influence on global well-being judgments.

“Initial research on the topic of health conditions often concluded that health played only a minor role in wellbeing judgments (Diener et al., 1999; Okun, Stock, Haring,
& Witter, 1984).”

More problematic was the finding that subjective evaluations of health seemed to play no role in these judgments in multivariate analyses that controlled for shared variance among ratings of several life domains. For example, in Andrews and Withey’s (1976) studies satisfaction with health contributed only 1% unique variance in the global measure.

In contrast, direct importance ratings show that health is rated as the second most important domain (Rohrer & Schmukle, 2018).

Thus, we have to conclude that health doesn’t seem to matter for people’s subjective well-being. Or we can conclude that global measures are (partially) invalid measures because respondents do not weigh life domains in accordance with their importance. This question clearly has policy relevance as health care costs are a large part of wealthy nations’ GDP and financing health care is a controversial political issue, especially in the United States. Why would this be the case, if health is actually not important for well-being. We could argue that it is important for life expectancy (Veenhoven’s happy life-years) or that it matters for objective well-being, but not for subjective well-being, but clearly the question why health satisfaction plays a small role in global measures of subjective well-being is an important one. The problem is that 40 years of well-being science have passed without addressing this important question. But as they say, better late than never. So, let’s get on with it and figure out how responses to global well-being questions are made and whether these cognitive processes are in line with the theoretical model of subjective well-being.

Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey’s Social Indicators of Well-Being

In 1976, Andrews and Withey published a groundbreaking book on the measurement of well-being. Although their book has been cited over 2,000 times, including influential articles like Diener’s 1984 and 1999 Psychological Bulletin articles on Subjective Well-Being, it is likely that many people are not familiar with the book because books are not as accessible as online articles. The aim of this blog post is to review and comment on the main points made by Andrews and Withey.

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

A&W (wink) believed that well-being indicators are useful because they reflect major societal forces that influence individuals’ well-being.

“In these days of growing interdependence and social complexity we need more adequate cues and indicators of the nature, meaning, pace, and course of social change” (p. 1).

Presumably, A&W would be pleasantly surprised about the widespread use of well-being surveys for this purpose. Well-being questions are included in the General Social Survey, The German Socio-Economic Panel Study, the World Value Survey, and Gallup’s World Poll and the daily survey of Americans’ well-being and health.

A&W saw themselves as part of a broader movement towards evidence based public policy.

The social indicator “movement” is gaining adherents all over the world. … Several facets of these definitions reflect the basic perspectives of the social indicator effort. The quest is for a limited yet comprehensive set of coherent and significant indicators, which can be monitored over time, and which can be disaggregated to the level of the relevant social unit (p. 4).

Objective and Subjective Indicators

A&W criticize the common distinction between objective and subjective indicators of well-being. Objective indicators such as hunger, pollution, or unemployment are factors that are universally considered bad for individuals are typically called objective indicators.

A&W propose to distinguish three features of indicators.

Thus, it may be more helpful and meaningful to consider the individualistic or consensual aspects of phenomena, the private or public accessibility of evidence, and the different forms and patterns of behavior needed to change something rather than to cling to the more simplistic notions of objective and subjective.

They propose to use “perceptions of well-being” as a social indicator. This indicator is individualistic, private, and may require personalized interventions to change them.

The work of engineers, industrialists, construction workers, technological innovators, foresters, and farmers who alter the physical and biological environment is matched by educators, therapists, advertisers, lovers, friends, ministers, politicians, and issue advocates who are all interested and active in constructing, tearing down, and remodeling subjective appreciations and experiences. (p. 6)

A&W argue that measuring “perceptions of well-being” is important because citizens of modern societies share the belief that societies should maximize well-being.

The promotion of individual well-being is a central goal of virtually all modern societies, and of many units within them. While there are real and important differences of opinion-both within societies and between them-about how individual well-being is to be maximized, there is nearly universal agreement that the goal itself is a worthy one and is to be actively pursued. (p. 7).

Research Goals

A&W’s goal was to develop a set of indicators (not just one) that fulfill several criteria that can be considered validation criteria.

1. Content validity. Their coverage should be sufficiently broad to include all the most
important concerns of the population whose well-being is to be monitored. If the relevant population includes demographic or cultural subgroups that might be the targets of separate social policies, or that might be affected differentially by social policies, the indicators should have relevance for each of the subgroups as well as for the whole population.

2. Construct Validity. The validity (i.e., accuracy) with which the indicators are measured
should be high, and known.

3. Parsimony and Efficiency: It should be possible to measure the indicators with a high degree of statistical and economic efficiency so that it is feasible to monitor them on a regular basis at reasonable cost.

4. Flexibility: The instrument used to measure the indicators should be flexible so that it can accommodate different trade-offs between resource input, accuracy of output, and degree of detail or specificity.

In short, the indicators should be measured with breadth, relevance, efficiency, validity, and flexibility. (p. 8).

A&W then list several specific research questions that they aimed to answer.

1. What are the more significant general concerns of the American people?

2. Which of these concerns are relevant to Americans’ sense of general wellbeing?

3. What is the relative potency of each concern vis-a.-vis well-being?

4. How do the relevant concerns relate to one another?

5. How do Americans arrive at their general sense of well-being?

6. To what extent can Americans easily identify and report their feelings
about well-being?

7. To what extent will they bias their answers?

8. How stable are Americans’ evaluations of particular concerns?

9. How comparable are various subgroups within the American population
with respect to each of the questions above?

Although some of these questions have been examined in great detail others have been neglected in the following decades of well-being research. In particular, very little attention has been paid to questions about the potency (strength of influence) of different concerns for global perceptions of well-being, and to the question how different concerns are related to each other. In contrast, the stability of well-being perceptions has been examined in numerous longitudinal studies (see Anusic & Schimmack, 2016, for the most recent meta-analysis).

Usefulness

A&W “propose six products of value to social scientists, to policymakers and implementers of policy, and to people who want to influence the course of society” (p. 9).

1. Repeated measurement of well-being perceptions can be used to see whether (humans’) lives are betting better or worse.

2. Comparison of groups (e.g., men vs. women, White vs. Black Americans) can be used to examine equity and inequity in well-being.

3. Positive or negative correlations among domains can be informative. For example, marital satisfaction may be positively or negatively correlated to each other, and this evidence has been used to study work-family or work-live balance.

4. It is possible to see how much well-being perceptions are based on more objective aspects of life (job, housing) versus more abstract aspects such as values or meaning.

5. It is informative to see what domains have a stronger influence on well-being perceptions, which shows people’s values and priorities.

6. It is important to know whether people appreciate actual improvement. For example, a drop in crime rates is more desirable if citizens also feel safer. “The appreciation of life’s conditions would often seem to be as important as what those conditions actually are” (p. 10).

One may justifiably claim, then, that people’s evaluations are terribly important: to those who would like to raise satisfactions by trying to meet people’s needs, to those who would like to raise dissatisfactions and stimulate new challenges, to those who would suppress or reduce feelings and public expressions of discontent, and above all, to the individuals themselves. It is their perceptions of their own well-being, or lack of well-being, that ultimately define the quality of their lives (p. 10).

BASIC CONCEPTS AND A CONCEPTUAL MODEL

The most important contribution of A&W is their conception of well-being as a broad evaluations of important life domains. We might think about a life as a pizza with several slices that have different toppings. Some are appealing (say ham and pineapple) and some are less appealing (say sardines and olives). Well-being is conceptualized as the sum or average of evaluations of the different slices. This view of well-being is now called the bottom-up model after Diener (1984).

We conceive of well-being indicators as occurring at several levels of specificity. The most global indicators are those that refer to life as a whole; they are not specific to anyone particular aspect of life (p. 11).

Mostly forgotten is A&W’s distinction between life domains and criteria.

Domains and Criteria

Domains are essentially different slices of the pizza of life such as work, family, health, recreation.

Criteria are values, standards, aspirations, goals, and-in general-ways of judging what the domains of life afford. In modern research, they are best represented by models of human values or motives, such as Schwartz’s model of human values. Thus, life domains or aspects can be desirable or undesirable because the foster or block fulfillment of universal needs for safety, freedom, pleasure, connectedness, and achievement to name a few.

The quality of life is not just a matter of the conditions of one’s physical, interpersonal and social setting but also a matter of how these are judged and evaluated by oneself and others. The values that one brings to bear on life are in themselves determinants of one’s assessed quality of life. Leave the situations of life stable and simply alter the standards of judgment and one’s assessed quality of life could go up or down according to the value framework. (p. 13).

A Conceptual Model

A&W’s Exhibit 1.1 shows a grid of life domains and evaluation criteria (values). According to their bottom-up model, perceptions of well-being are an integrated summary of these lower-order evaluations of specific life domains.

“The diagram is also intended to imply that global evaluations-i.e., how a person feels about life as a whole-may be the result of combining the domain evaluations or the criterion evaluations” (p. 14)

METHODS AND DATA

The Measurement of Affective Evaluations

A&W proposed that perceptions of well-being are based on two modes of evaluation.

The basic entries in the model, just described, are what we designate as “affective evaluations.” The phrase suggests our hypothesis that a person’s assessment of life quality involves both a cognitive evaluation and some degree of positive and/or negative feeling, i.e., “affect.”

One mode is cognitive and could be performed by a computer. Once objective circumstances are known and there are clear criteria for evaluation, it is possible to compute the discrepancy. For example, if a person needs $40,000 a year to afford housing, food, and basic necessities, an income of $20,000 is clearly inadequate, whereas an income of $70,000 is more than adequate. However, A&W also propose that evaluations have a feeling or affective component. That is, the individual who earns only $20,000 may feel worse about their income, while the individual with a $70,000 income may feel good about their income.

Not much progress has been made in terms of distinguishing affective or cognitive evaluations, especially when it comes to evaluations of specific life domains. One problem is that it is difficult to measure affective reactions and that self-reports of feelings may simply be cognitive judgments. It is therefore easier to think about well-being “perceptions” as evaluations, without trying to distinguish between cognitive and affective evaluations.

Both global and more specific evaluations are measured with rating scales. A&W favored the delighted-terrible scale, but it didn’t catch on. Much more commonly used is Cantril’s Ladder or life-satisfaction or happiness questions.

In the next section of this interview/questionnaire we want to find out how you feel about various parts of your life, and life in this country as you see it. Please tell me the feelings you have now-taking into account what has happened in the last year and what you expect in the near future.

A&W were concerned that a large proportion of respondents’ report high levels of satisfaction because they are merely satisfied, but not really happy or delighted. They also wanted a 7-point scale and suggested that more categories would not produce more sensitive responses, while a 7-point scale is clearly preferable to the 3-point happiness measure that is still used in the General Social Survey. They also wanted a scale where each response option is clearly labelled, while some scales like Cantril’s ladder only label the most extreme options (best possible life, worst possible life).

Data Sources

A&W conducted several cross-sectional surveys.

CHAPTER 2: Identifying and Mapping Concerns

Research Strategy

The basic strategy of our approach was first to assemble a very large number of possible life concerns and to write questionnaire items to tap people’s feelings, if any, about them. Then, having administered these items to broad samples of Americans, we used the resulting data to empirically explore how people’s feelings about these items are organized.

IDENTIFYING CONCERNS

The task of identifying concerns involved examining four different types of
sources.

One source was previous surveys that had included open questions about
people’s concerns. Two examples of such items are:

All of us want certain things out of life. When you think about what really
matters in your own life, what are your wishes and hopes for the future? In
other words, if you imagine your future in the best possible light, what
would your life look like then, if you are to be happy? (Cantril, 1965)

In this study we are interested in people’s views about many different
things. What things going on in the United States these days worry or
concern you? (Blumenthal et aI., 1972)

In our search for expression of life concerns, we examined data from these very general unstructured questions in eight different surveys.

A second type of source was structured interviews, typically lasting an hour or two with about a dozen people of heterogeneous background.

A third type of source, particularly useful for expanding our list of criterion-type concerns, was previously published lists of values.

This information was used to create items that were administered in some of the surveys.

MAPPING THE CONCERNS

Given the list of 123 concern items, the next step was to explore how they fit
together in people’s thinking.

Maps and the Mapping Process

Selecting and Clustering Concern-Level Measures

A&W’s work identified clusters of concerns that are often included in surveys of domain satisfaction such as work (green), recreation (orange), standard of living (purple), housing (light blue), health (red), and family (dark blue).

The map for criteria, shows that the most central values are hedonism (having fun), achievement, acceptance and affiliation (accept by other) and freedom.

These findings are consistent with modern conceptions of well-being as the freedom to seek pleasure and to avoid pain (Bentham).

CHAPTER 3: Measuring Global Well-Being

A&W compiled 68 items that had been used to measure global well-being.

Formal Structure of the Typology

A&W provided a taxonomy of the various global measures.

Accordingly, measures can differ in the perspective of the evaluation, the generality of the evaluation, and the range of the evaluation. For the measurement of global well-being general measures that cover the full-range from an absolute perspective are most widely used.

We find that the Type A measures, involving a general evaluation of the respondent’s life-as-a-whole from an absolute perspective, tend to cluster together into what we shall call the core cluster” (p. 76).

A study of the retest stability for the same item in the same survey showed a retest correlation of r = .68. This estimate for the reliability of a single global well-being rating has been replicated in numerous studies (see Ansic & Schimmack, 2005; Schimmack & Oishi, 2005; for meta-analyses).

A&W also provided some evidence about measurement invariance across subgroups (gender, racial groups, age groups) and found very similar results.

“The results (not shown) indicated very substantial stabilities across the subgroups. In nearly all cases the correlations within the subgroups were within 0.1 of the correlations within the total population.” (p. 83).

The next results show that different global well-being measures tend to be highly correlated with each other. Exceptions are the 3-point happiness scale in the GSS, which lacks sensitivity, and the affect measure because affect measures show some discriminant validity from life evaluations (Zou, Schimmack, & Gere, 2013). That is, an individuals’ perception of well-being is not fully determined by their perception of how much pleasure versus displeasure they experienced.

A principal component analysis showed items with high loadings that best capture the shared variance among global well-being measures.

The results show that the 7-point delighted-terrible (Life 1, Life 2) or a 7-point happiness scale capture this variance well.

These results lead A&W to conclude that these measures are valid and useful indicators of well-being.

“We believe the Type A measures clearly deserve our primary attention. Thus, it is reassuring to find that the Type A measures provide a statistically defensible set of general evaluations of the level of current wellbeing” (p. 106).

CHAPTER 4: Predicting Global Well-Being: I

A&W argue that statistical predictors of global well-being ratings provide useful information about the cognitive processes (what is going on in the minds of respondents) underlying well-being ratings.

Finding a statistical model that fits the data has real substantive interest, as well as methodological, because in these data the statistical model can also be considered as a psychological model. Not only is the model that method of combining feelings that provides the best predictions, it is also our best indication of what may go on in the minds of the respondents when they themselves combine feelings about specific life concerns to arrive at global evaluations. Thus, our statistical model can also be considered as a simulation of psychological processes (p. 109).

This assumption is reasonable as ratings are clearly influenced by some information in memory that is activated during the formation of a response. However, the actual causal mechanism can be more complicated. For example, job satisfaction may be correlated with global well-being only because respondents’ think about income and income satisfaction is related with job satisfaction. Moreover, Diener (1984) pointed out that causality may flow from global well-being to domain satisfaction, which is now called a top-down process. Thus, rather than job satisfaction being used to make a global well-being judgment, respondents’ affective disposition may influence their job satisfaction.

A&W’s next finding has been replicated and emphasized in many review articles on well-being.

The prediction of global well-being from the demographic characteristics of the respondents produced straightforward results that have proved surprising to some observers: The demographic variables, either singly or jointly, account for very little of the variance in perceptions of global well-being (less than 10 percent), and they add nothing to what can be predicted (more accurately) from the concern measures (p. 109).

This finding has also been misinterpreted as evidence that objective life circumstances have a small influence on well-being. The problem with this interpretation is that demographic variables do not represent all environmental influences and many of them are not even environmental factors (e.g., sex, age, race). It is true, however, that there are relatively small differences in well-being perceptions across different groups. The main exception is a persistent gap in well-being of White and Black Americans (Iceland & Ludwig-Dehm, 2019).

A&W conducted numerous tests to look for non-linear relationships. For example, only very low income satisfaction or health satisfaction may be related to global well-being if moderate levels of income or health are sufficient to be satisfied with life. However, they found no notable non-linear relationships.

However, after examining many associations between feelings about specific life concerns and life-as-a-whole, we conclude that substantial curvilinearities do not occur when affective evaluations are assessed using the DelightedTerrible Scale (p. 110).

Exhibit 4.1 shows simple linear correlations of various life concerns with the averaged repeated ratings on the Delighted-Terrible scale (Life 3).

The main finding is that all correlations are positive, most are moderate, and some are substantial (r > .5), such as the correlations for fun/enjoyment, self-efficacy, income, and family/marriage.

It is important to interpret differences in the strength of correlations with caution because several factors influence how strong these correlations are. One factor is the amount of variability in a predictor variable. For example, while incomes can vary dramatically, the national government is the same for everybody. Thus, there is no variability in government that can produce variability in well-being across respondents; although perceptions of government can vary and could influence well-being perceptions. Keeping this caveat in mind, the results suggest that concerns about standard of living and family life seem to matter most. Interestingly, health is not a major factor, but once again, this might simply reflect relatively small variability in actual health, while health may become more of a concern later in life.

Nevertheless, while the causal processes that produce these correlations are unclear, any theory of well-being has to account for this robust pattern of correlations. between global well-being perceptions and concerns.

MULTIVARIATE PREDICTION OF LIFE 3

Regression analysis aims to identify variables that make a unique contribution to the prediction of an outcome. That is, they share variance with the outcome that is not shared by other predictor variables.

As mentioned before, there was no evidence of marked non-linearity, so all variables were entered as measured without transformation or quadratic terms. A&W also examined potential interaction effects, but did not find evidence for these either.

Weighting Schemes

One of the most important analyses was the exploration of different weighting schemes. Intuitively, it makes sense that some domains are more important than others (e.g., standard of living vs. weather). If this is the case, a predictor that weights standard of living more should be a better predictor of well-being than a predictor that weights all concerns equally.

A&W found that a simple average of 12 concerns was highly correlated with the global measure.

Several explorations provide consistent and clear answers to these questions. A simple summing of answers to any of certain alternative sets of concern items (coded from 1 to 7 on the Delighted-Terrible Scale) provides a prediction of feelings about life-as-a-whole that correlates rather well with the respondent’s actual scores on Life 3. Using twelve selected concerns12 (mainly domains) and data from the May respondents, this correlation was .67 (based on 1,278 cases); using eight selected concerns13 (all criteria) and data from the April respondents, the correlation was .77 (based on 1,070 cases). These relatively high values obtain in subgroups of the population as well as in the population as a whole: When the sum of answers to eight of the April concern items was correlated with Life 3 in twenty-one different subgroups of the national adult population, the correlation was never lower than .70 nor higher than .82. (p. 118).

However, more important is the question whether other weighing schemes produce higher correlations, and the important finding is that optimal weights (using regression coefficients) produced only a small improvement in the multiple correlation.

What is extremely interesting is that the optimally weighted combination of concern measures provides a prediction of Life 3 that is, at most, only modestly better than that provided by the simple sum. In the May data, the previous correlation of .67 could be increased to .71 by optimally weighting the twelve concern measures.

A&W conclude that a model with equal weights is a parsimonious and good model of well-being.

Our conclusion is that the introduction of weights when summing answers to the concern measures is likely to produce a modest improvement, but that even a simple sum of the answers provides a prediction that is remarkably close to the best that can be statistically derived.

However, the use of a fixed regression weight implies that all respondents attach the same importance of different domains. It is plausible that this is not the case. For example, some people live to work and others work to live. So, work would have different importance for different respondents. A&W tested this by asking respondents about the importance of several domains and used this information to weight concerns on a person by person basis. They found that this did not improve prediction.

The significant finding that emerged is that there was no possible use of these importance data that produced the slightest increase in the accuracy with which feelings about life-as-a-whole could be predicted over what could be achieved using an optimally weighted combination of answers to the concern measures alone. Although a number of questions remain with respect to the nature and meaning of the importance measures (some are explored in chap. 7), we have an unambiguous answer to our original question: Data about the importance people assign to concerns did not increase the accuracy with which
feelings about life-as-a-whole could be predicted
(p. 119).

This surprising result has been replicated numerous times (Rohrer & Schmukle, 2018). However, nobody has attempted to explain why importance weights do not improve prediction. After all, it is theoretically nonsensical within A&W’s theoretical framework to say that work, family, and health are very important, to be extremely dissatisfied in these domains, and then to report high global well-being. If global well-being judgments are, indeed, based on information about concerns and life domains, then important life domains should have a stronger relationship with global well-being ratings than unimportant domains (cf. Schimmack, Diener, & Oishi, 2002).

While I share A&W’s surprise, I am much less pleased by this finding.

Our results point to a simple linear additive one, in which an optimal set of weights is only modestly better than no weights (i.e. equal weights).19 We confess to both surprise and pleasure at these conclusions (p. 120).

A&W are pleased because a simple additive, linear model is simple and science favors simple models, when they fit actual data reasonably well, which seems to be the case here.

However, A&W are too quick to interpret their results as support for their bottom-up model of well-being, where everybody weights concerns equally and well-being perceptions depend only on the relative standing in life domains (good job, happy marriage, etc.).

Interpreted in this light, the linear additive model suggests that somehow individuals themselves “add up” their joys and sorrows about specific concerns to arrive at a feeling about general well-being. It appears that joys in one area of life may be able to compensate for sorrows in other areas; that multiple joys accumulate to raise the level of felt well-being; and that multiple sorrows also accumulate to lower it.

In discussing these findings with various colleagues and commentators, the question has sometimes been raised as to whether the model implies a policy of “give them bread and circuses.” The model does suggest that bread and circuses are likely to increase a population’s sense of general well-being. However, the model does not suggest that bread and circuses alone will ensure a high level of well-being. On the contrary, it is quite specific in noting that concerns that are evaluated more negatively than average (e.g., poor housing, poor government, poor health facilities, etc.) would be expected to pull down the general sense of well-being, and that multiple negative feelings about life would be expected to have a cumulative impact on general well-being.

At least at this stage of the investigation in Chapter 4 other, more troubling interpretations of the results are possible. Maybe most of the variance in these evaluative judgments are response biases and social desirable responding. This alone could produce strong correlations and they would be independent of the actual concerns that are being rated. Respondents could rate the weather on Mars and we would still see that those who are more satisfied with the weather on Mars have higher global well-being.

However, A&W’s subsequent analyses are inconsistent with their conclusions. Exhibit 4.2 shows the regression weights for various concerns that are sorted by the amount of unique contribution to the global impressions. It is clear that averaging the top 12 concerns would give a measure that is more strongly related to global well-being than averaging the last 12 concerns. Thus, domains do differ in importance. The results in the last column (E) are interesting because here 12 domains explain 51% of the total variance, but squaring the regression coefficients provides only 17% of variance, which implies that most of the explained variance stems from variance that is shared among the predictor variables. Thus, it is important to examine the nature of this shared variance more closely. In this mode, the first five domains account for 15 of the 17 percent in total. These domains are efficacy, family, money, fun, and housing. Thus, there is some support for the bottom-up model for some domains, but most of the explained variance may stem from shared method variance between concern ratings and well-being ratings.

Exhibit 4.3 confirms this with a stepwise regression analysis where concerns are entered according to their unique importance. Self-efficacy alone accounts for 30% of the explained variance. Then family adds 9%, money adds 5%, fun adds 3%, and housing 1%. The remaining variables add less than 1% individually.

Exhibit 4.4 shows that demongraphic variables are weak predictors of well-being ratings and that these relationships are weakened when concerns are added as predictors (column 3).

This suggests that effects of demongraphic variables are at least partially mediated by concerns (Schimmack, 2008). For example, the influence of income on well-being ratings could be explained by the effect of income on satisfaction with money, which is a unique predictor of well-being ratings (income -> money satisfaction-> life satisfaction). The limitation of regression analysis is that it does not show which of the concerns mediates the influence of income. A better way to examine mediation is to test mediation models with structural equation modeling (Baron & Kenny, 1986).

A&W draw the conclusion that there are no major differences in perceived well-being between social groups. As mentioned before, this is only partially correct. The GSS shows consistent racial differences in well-being.

The conclusion seems inescapable that there is no strong and direct relationship between membership in these social subgroups and feelings about life-as-a-whole” (p. 142).

CHAPTER 5: Predicting Global Well-Being: II

Chapter 5 does not make a major novel contribution. It mainly explores how concerns are related to the broader set of global measures. The results show that the findings in Chapter 4 generalize to other global measures.

CHAPTER 6: Evaluating the Measures of Well-Being

Chapter 6 tackles the important question of construct validity. Do global measures measure individuals’ true evaluations of their lives?

How good are the measures of perceived well-being reported in previous chapters of this book? More specifically, to what extent do the data produced by the various measurement methods indicate a person’s true feelings about his life? (p. 175).

A&W note several reasons why global ratings may have low validity.

Unfortunately, evaluating measures of perceived well-being presents formidable problems. Feelings about one’s life are internal, subjective matters. While very real and important to the person concerned, these feelings are not necessarily manifested in any direct way. If people are asked about these feelings, most can and will speak about them, but a few may lie outright, others may shade their answers to some degree, and probably most are influenced to some extent by the framework in which the questions are put and the format in which the answers are expected. Thus, there is no assurance that the answers people give fully represent their true feelings. (p. 176)

ESTIMATION OF THE VALIDITY AND ERROR COMPONENTS OF THE
MEASURES

Measurement Theory and Models

A&W are explicit in their ambition. They want to estimate the proportion of variance in global well-being measures that reflects respondents’ true evaluations of their lives. They want to separate this variance from random measurement error, which is relatively easy, and systematic measurement error, which is hard (Campbell & Fiske, 1959).

The analyses to be reported in this major section of the chapter begin from the fact that the variance of any measure can be partitioned into three parts: a valid component, a correlated (i.e., systematic) error component, and a random error (or “residual”) component. Our general analysis goal is to estimate, for measures of different types, from different surveys, and derived from different methods, how the total variance can be divided among these three components (p. 178).

A “validity coefficient,” as this term is commonly used by social scientists, is the correlation (Pearson’s product-moment r) between the true conditions and the obtained measure of those conditions. The square of the validity coefficient gives the proportion of observed variance that is true variance; e.g., a measure that has a validity coefficient of .8 contains 64 percent valid variance; similarly, a measure that contains 49 percent valid variance has a validity of .7. (p. 179; cf. Schimmack, 2010).

One source of systematic measurement error are response sets such as aquiescence bias. Another one is halo bias.

A special form of bias is what is sometimes known as “halo.” One would hope that a respondent, when answering a series of questions about different aspects of something-e.g., his own life, or someone else’s life-would distinguish clearly among those aspects. Sometimes, however, the answers are substantially affected by the respondent’s general impression and are not as distinct from one another as an external observer might think they should be. This is particularly likely to happen when the respondent is not well acquainted with the details of what is being investigated or when the questions and/or
answer categories are themselves unclear. Of course, “halo,” which produces an undesired source of correlation among the measures, must be distinguished from the sources of true correlation among the measures.
(p. 179).

Exhibit 6.1 uses the graphical language of structural equation modelling to illustrate the measurement model. Here the oval on the left represents the true variation in well-being perceptions in a sample. The boxes in the middle represent two measures of well-being (e.g., two ratings on a delighted-terrible scale). The oval on the right reflects sources that produce systematic measurement error (e.g., halo bias). In this model, the observed correlation is the retest reliability of a single global measure and it is a function of the strength of the causal effects of the true variance (path a and a’) and the systematic measurement (b and b’) on the two measures.

The problem with this model is that there is only one observed correlation and two possible causal effects (assuming equal strength for a and a’, and b and b’). Thus, it is unclear how much of the reliable variance reflects actual variation in true well-being.

To make empirical claims about the validity of global well-being ratings, it is necessary to embed them in a network of variables that shows theoretically predicted relationships. Within a larger set of variables, the path from the construct to the observed measures may be identifiable (Cronbach & Meehl, 1955; Schimmack, 2019).

Estimates Derived from the July Data

Scattered throughout the July questionnaire was a set of thirty-seven items that, when brought together for the purposes of the present analysis, forms a nearly complete six-by-six multimethod-multitrait matrix; i.e., a matrix in which six different “traits” (aspects of well-being) are assessed by each of six different methods. (p. 183)

The concerns were chosen to be well spread in the perceptual structure (as shown in Exhibit 2.2) and to include both domains and criteria. The following six aspects of well-being are represented: Life-as-a-whole, House or apartment, Spare-time activities, National government, Standard of living, and Independence or Freedom. The six measurement methods involve: self-ratings on the Delighted-Terrible, Faces, Circles, and Ladder Scales, the Social Comparison technique, and Ratings by others. (The exact wording of each of the concern-level items appears in Exhibit 2.1; see items 3D, 44, 85, 87, and 105. For descriptions of the six methods used to assess life-as-a-whole, see Exhibit 3.1, measures G1, G5, G6, G7, G13, and G54, these same methods were also used to assess the concern-level aspects. (p. 184).

Exhibit 6.2 shows the partial structural equation model for the global ratings and two domains. The key finding is that the correlations between residuals of the same rating scale tend to be rather small, while the validity coefficients are high. This seems to suggest that most of the reliable variance in global and domain measures is valid variance rather than systematic measurement error.

As much as I like Andrews and Withey’s work and recognize their contribution to well-being science in its infancy, I am disappointed by their discussion of the model.

Because the model shown in Exhibit 6.2 incorporates our theoretical expectations about how various phenomena influenced the validity and error components of the observed measures, because serious alternative theories have not come to our attention, and because the model in fact fits the data rather well (as will be described shortly), it seems reasonable to use it to estimate the validity and error components of the measures (p. 187)

On the basis of these results we infer that single item measures using the D-T, Faces, or Circles Scales to assess any of a wide range of different aspects of perceived well-being contain approximately 65 percent valid variance (p. 189).

Their own discussion of halo bias suggests that their model fails to account for systematic measurement error that is shared by different rating formats (Schimmack, , Böckenholt, & Reisenzein, 2002). It is well known that response sets have a negligible influence on ratings, but halo bias has a stronger influence.

It is important that the model actually includes measures that are based on the aggregated ratings of three informants that knew the respondent well (others’ rating). This makes the study a multi-method study that not only varies the response format, but also the rater. Other research has shown that halo bias is rather unique to a single rater (Anusic et al., 2009). Thus, halo bias cannot inflate correlations between respondents’ self-ratings and ratings by others. The problem is that a model with two-methods is unstable. It is only identified here because there are multiple self-ratings. In this case, halo bias can be hidden in higher loadings of the self-ratings on the true well-being factor than the other’ ratings. This is clearly the case. The loading for the informant ratings , as ratings by others’ are typically called, for global well-being is only .40, despite the fact that it is an average of three ratings and averaging increases validity. Based on the factor loadings, we can infer that the self-informant correlations are .4 * .8 = .32, which is in line with meta-analytic results from other studies (Schneider & Schimmack, 2009). A&W’s model gives the false impression that self-ratings are much more valid than informant ratings, but models that can test this assumption by using each informant as a separate method show that this is not the case (Zou et al., 2013). Thus, A&W’s work may have given a false impression about the validity of global well-being ratings. While they claimed that two-thirds of the variance is valid variance, other studies suggest it is only one-third, after taking halo bias into account.

A&W’s model shows high residual correlations among the three others’ ratings of life, housing, and freedom. They interpret this finding as evidence that halo bias has a strong influence on informant ratings.

The relatively high method effects in measures obtained from Others’ ratings is notable, but not terribly surprising. Since other people have less direct access to the respondents’ feelings than do the respondents themselves, one would expect substantially more “halo” in the Others’ ratings than in the respondents’ own ratings. This would be a reasonable explanation for the large amount of correlated error in these scores. (p. 189).

However, if these concerns are related to global well-being, but informant ratings have low loadings on the true factors, the model has to find another way to relate informant ratings of related to domains. The model is unable to test whether these correlations reflect bias or valid relationships. In contrast, other studies find no evidence that halo bias is considerably less present in self-ratings than in informant ratings (Anusic et al., 2009; Kim, Schimmack, & Oishi, 2012).

It is unfortunate that A&W and many researchers after them aggregated informant ratings, instead of treating informants as separate methods. As a result, 30 years of research failed to provide information about the amount of valid variance in self-ratings and informant ratings, leaving A&W’s estimate of 65% and 15% unquestioned. It was only in 2013, when Zou et al. (2013) showed that family members are as valid as the self in ratings of global well-being and that the proportions of variance are more equal around 30-40% valid variance for both. Self-ratings are only more valid when informant ratings are obtained from recent friends with less than two years of acquaintance (Schneider et al., 2010).

The low validity of informant ratings in A&W’s model led them to suggest that people are rather private about their true feelings about live.

What is of interest is that even people who the respondents felt knew them pretty well were in fact relatively poor judges of the respondents’ perceptions. This suggests that perceptions of well-being may be rather private matters. While people can-and did-give reasonably reliable answers (and, we estimate reasonably valid answers) regarding their affective evaluations of a wide range of life concerns, it would seem that they do not communicate their perceptions even to their friends and neighbors with much precision (p. 191).

While this may be true for neighbors, it is not true for family members. Moreover, other studies have found stronger correlations when informant ratings were aggregated across more informants and when informants are family members rather than neighbors (Schneider & Schimmack, 2009), and these stronger correlations have been used as evidence for the validity of self-ratings (Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell, 2009). Based on the same logic, A&W results would undermine the use of informant ratings as evidence of convergent validity of self-ratings.

There are several reasons why the modes validity of global well-being ratings has been ignored. First, it seems plausible that self-ratings are more valid because individuals have access to all of the relevant information. They know how things are going in their lives and they know what is important to them. In contrast, it is virtually certain that informants do not have access to all of the relevant information. However, these differences in accessibility of relevant information do not automatically ensure that self-ratings are more valid. This would only be the case if respondents are motivated to engage in an exhaustive search that retrieves all of the relevant information. This assumption has been questioned (Schwarz & Strack, 1999). Thus, we cannot simply assume that self-ratings are valid. The aim of validation research is to test this assumption. A&W’s model was unable to test it because they had several self-ratings and only one aggregated other-rating as indicators.

The second reason may be self-serving interest. The assumption that a single-item happiness rating can be used to measures something as complex and important as an individuals’ well-being makes these ratings very appealing for social scientists. If the assessment of well-being would require a complex set of questions about 20 life-domains with 10 criteria, it would be impossible to survey the well-being of nations and populations. The reason well-being is one of the most widely studied social constructs across several disciplines is that a single happiness item was easy to add to a survey.

DISTRIBUTIONS PRODUCED BY THE MORE VALID METHODS

A&W also examine and care about the distribution of responses. They developed the delighted-terrible scale because they observed that even on a 7-point satisfaction scale responses clustered at the top.

Our data clearly show that the Delighted-Terrible Scale produces greater differentiation at the positive end of the scale than the seven-point Satisfaction Scale (p. 207).

However, the differences that they mention are rather small and both formats produce similar means.

RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN MEASURES OF PERCEIVED WELL-BEING AND OTHER TYPES OF VARIABLES

a reasonably consistent and not very surprising pattern emerged. Nearly always, relationships were in the “expected” direction, and most were rather weak (p. 214).

However, these weak correlations were systematic and stronger when researchers expected stronger correlations.

Where concerns had been judged relevant to the other items, the average correlation was .31; where staff members had been uncertain as to the concerns’ relevance, the average correlation was .25; and where concerns had been judged irrelevant the average correlation was .15″ (p. 214).

The problem is that A&W interpreted these results as evidence that perceived well-being is relatively independent of life conditions or actual behaviors.

Our general conclusion is that one will not usually find strong and direct relationships
between measures of perceived well-being and reports of most life conditions or
behaviors (p.
214).

This conclusion is partially based on the false inference that most of the variance in well-being ratings is valid variance. Another problem is that well-being is a broad construct and that a single behavior (e.g., sexual frequency; cf. Muise, Schimmack, & Impett, 2016) will only influence a small slice of the pizza of life. Other designs like twin studies or studies of spouses who are exposed to similar life circumstances are better suited to make claims about the importance of life conditions for well-being (Schimmack & Lucas, 2010). If differences in life circumstances do not explain variation in perceptions of well-being, what else could produce these differences? A&W do not address this question.

It would be naive to think that a person’s feelings about various aspects of life could be
perfectly predicted by knowing only the characteristics of the person’s present
environment. Developing adequate explanations for why people feel as they do
about various life concerns would be a challenging undertaking in its own
right. While we believe this could prove scientifically fruitful, such an investigation
is not part of the work we are presently reporting.

This question became the focus of personality theories of well-being (Costa & McCrae, 1980; Diener, 1984) and it is now well-established that stable dispositions to experience more pleasure (positive affect) and less displeasure (negative affect) contribute to perceptions of well-being (Schimmack, Oishi, & Diener, 2002;

CHAPTER 7: Exploring the Dynamics of Evaluation

Explorations 1 and 2 examine how response categories of different formats correspond to each other.

EXPLORATION 3: HYPOTHETICAL FAMILY INCOMES AND AFFECTIVE EVALUATIONS ON THE D-T SCALE

This exploration examined response options on the delighted-terrible scale in relation to hypothetical income levels.

The dollar amounts would need to be translated into current dollar amounts to be meaningful. Nevertheless, it is surprising how small the gaps are even for the highest, delighted, category.

EXPLORATION 6: AN IMPLEMENTATION OF THE DOMAINS-BY-CRITERIA MODEL

Design of the Analysis and Measures Employed

A&W wrote items for each of the 48 cells in the 6 domains x 8 criteria matrix. They found that all items had small to moderate correlations with the global measure.

“The fortyeight correlations involved range from .13 to .41 with a mean of .20.”

Domain-criterion items were also more strongly correlated with judgments of the same domain than with other domains.

If the model is right, each concern-level variable should tend to have higher relationships with the cell variables that are assumed to influence it than with other cell variables. This expectation also proves to be supported by the data. For the domains, the average of the forty-eight correlations with “relevant” cell variables is .48 (as noted previously) while the average of the 240 correlations with “irrelevant” cell variables is .20 (p. 236).

For the criteria, a similar but somewhat smaller difference exists: The forty-eight correlations with “relevant” cell variables average .37, while the 320 correlations with “irrelevant” cell variables average .27. Furthermore, these differences are not reversed for any of the fourteen concern measures considered individually (p. 236).

Exhibit 7.5 shows regression weights from a multiple regression with (a) criteria as predictors (top) and with domains as predictors (bottom). At the top, the key criteria are fun and accomplishments. Standard of living matters only for evaluations of housing and national government, beauty for housing and neighbourhood. At the bottom, housing family and free time contribute to fun, and job and free time contribute to accomplishments. Free time probably does so by means of hobbies or volunteering. For life in general, fun and accomplishment (top) and housing, family, free time, and job are the key predictors.

EXPLORATION 7: COMPARISONS BETWEEN ONE’S OWN WELL-BEING AND THAT OF OTHERS

When Life-as-a-whole is being assessed, the consistent finding is that most people think they are better off than either other people in general (“all the adults in the U.S.”) or their nearest same-sexed neighbor. (p. 240).

This finding is probably just the typical better-than-average effect that is obtained for desirable traits. One explanation for it is that people do not overestimate themselves, but rather underestimate others, and do not sufficiently adjust the comparison. After all, if A&W are right we do not know much about the well-being of others, especially when we do not know them well.

Interestingly, the results switch for national government, which receives low ratings. So, here the adjustment problem works in the opposite direction and respondents underestimate how dissatisfied others are with the government.

EXPLORATION 8: JUDGMENTS OF THE “IMPORTANCE” OF CONCERNS

“One of the hypotheses with which we started was that the relative importance a person assigned to various life concerns should be taken into account when combining concern-level evaluations to predict feelings about Life-as-awhole. The hypothesis is based on the expectation that when forming evaluations of overall well-being people would give greater “weight” to those concerns they felt were important, and less weight to those they regarded as less significant. As described in chapter 4, a careful examination of this hypothesis showed it to be untrue.”

In one analysis we looked to see whether the mean importance assigned to a given concern bore any relationship to its association with feelings about Life-as-
a-whole. If our original hypothesis had been correct, one would have expected a high relationship here; feelings about Life-as-a-whole would have had more to do with feelings about the important concerns than with feelings about the others. Using the data from our colleagues’ survey the answer was essentially “no.” Over ten concerns, the rank correlation between mean importance and the size of the simple bivariate relationship (measured by the eta statistic) was – .39: There was a modest tendency for the concerns that had higher relationships to Life-as-a-whole to be judged less important: When we performed the same analysis using a more complex multivariate relationship derived by holding constant the effects of all other nine concerns (measured by the beta statistic from Multiple classification Analysis), the rank correlation was + .15. A similar analysis in the July data produced a rank correlation of + .30 between the importance of concerns and the size of their (bivariate) relationships to the Life 3 measure. It seems clear that the mean importance assigned to a concern has little to do with the relationship between that concern and feelings about Life-as-a-whole (p. 243).

This is a puzzling finding and seems to undermine A&W’s bottom-up model of well-being perceptions. One problem is that Pearson correlations are sensitive to the amount of variance and the distribution of variables. For example, health could be important, but because it is important it is at high levels for most respondents. As a result, the Pearson correlation with perceived well-being would be low, which it actually is. A different kind of correlation coefficient or analysis would be needed for a better test of the hypothesis that more important domains are stronger predictors of well-being perceptions.

Further insight about the meaning of importance judgments emerged when we checked to see whether the importance assigned to a concern has anything to do with the position of the concern in the psychological structure. We compared the importance data for the ten concerns as assessed in our colleagues’ survey with the position of those concerns in the structural maps derived from our own national sample of May respondents (see Exhibit 2.4). There was a distinct tendency for concerns that were closer to Self and Family to
receive higher importance ratings than those that were more remote (rho = .52). When the analysis was repeated using the importance of the concerns as judged by our July respondents, a parallel result emerged (rho = .43). Still a third version of the analysis took the importance of the concerns as judged by the July respondents and checked the location of the concerns in the plot derived from these same respondents (Exhibit 2.2). Here the relationship was somewhat higher (rho = .59). We conclude that importance ratings are substantially linked to the position of the concern in the perceptual structure, and that concerns that are seen as being closely associated with oneself and one’s family tend to be ranked as more important than others
. (p. 244)

This is an interesting observation, but A&W do not elaborate further on it. Thus, it remains a mystery why respondents’ rate some domains as more important, but variation in these domains is not a stronger predictor of well-being evaluations.

END OF PART I

Conclusion

A&W provided a groundbreaking and exemplary examination of the construct validity of global well-being ratings. They presented a coherent theory that assumes global well-being judgments are integrative, mostly additive, evaluations of several life domains based on several criteria. Surprisingly, they found that weighing domains by importance did not improve predictions. They also tested a multi-trait-multi-method model to separate valid variance from method variance in well-being ratings. They concluded that two-thirds of the variance in self-ratings is valid, but only 15% of the variance in informant ratings are valid. Based on these results, they concluded that even a single global well-being rating is a valid measure of individuals’ true feelings about their lives, which we would rather call attitudes towards their lives, these days.

It is unfortunate that few well-being researchers have tried to build on A&W’s seminal work. To my knowledge, I am the only one who has fitted MTMM models to self-ratings and informant ratings of well-being to separate valid variance from systematic measurement error. Ironically, A&W’s impressive results may be the reason why further validation research has been neglected. However, A&W made some mistakes in their MTMM model and never explained the inconsistency between the bottom-up theory and their finding that importance weights do not improve prediction. Unfortunately, it is possible that their model was wrong and that a much larger portion of the variance in single-item well-being measures is method variance and that bottom-up effects on these measures are relatively weak and do not reflect the true importance of life circumstances for individuals’ well-being. Health is a particularly relevant domain. According to A&W’s results, variation in health satisfaction has relatively little unique effect on global well-being ratings. Does this really mean that health is unimportant? Does this mean that the massive increase in health spending over the past years is a waste of money? Or does it mean, global life evaluations are not as valid as we think they are and they fail to capture the relative importance of life domains for individuals’ well-being?

Open-SOEP: Personality and Wellbeing Revisited

[corrected 8/6/2019 5.29pm – there was a mistake in the model for worry]

After behaviorism banned emotions as scientific constructs and cognitivism viewed humans as computers, the 1980s witnessed the affective revolution. Finally, psychologists were again allowed to study feelings.

The 1980s also were a time where personality psychologists agreed on the Big Five as a unified model of personality traits. Accordingly, personality can be efficiently summarized by individuals’ standing on five dimensions: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.

Not surprisingly, the 1980s also produced a model of personalty, emotions (affect), and well-being that has survived until today. The model was first proposed by Costa and McCrae in 1980 (see Schimmack, 2019, for details). This model assumed that extraversion is a disposition to experience more positive affect, neuroticism is a disposition to experience more negative affect, and the balance of positive and negative affect is a major determinant of life-satisfaction. As extraversion and neuroticism are independent dimensions, the model also assumed that positive affect and negative affect are independent, which led to the creation of the widely used Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule (Watson et al., 1988) as a measure of well-being.

The model also assumed that general affective dispositions account for most of the stability in well-being over time, while environmental factors produce only momentary and short-lived fluctuations around dispositional levels of well-being (Diener, 1984; Lykken & Tellgen, 1996). This model dominated well-being research in psychology for 20 years (see Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999, for a review).

However, when Positive Psychology emerged at the beginning of the new millenium, psychologists focus shifted from the influence of stable dispositions to factors that could be changed with interventions to boost individuals’ wellbeing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and some articles even questioned the influence of dispositions on well-being (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 1996). As a result, the past 20 years have seen very little new research on dispositional influences on well-being. The last major article is a meta-analysis that showed positive correlations of extraversion and neuroticism with several well-being indicators (Steel, Schmidt, & Shultz, 2008).

Revisiting the Evidence

There is robust evidence for the influence of neuroticism on wellbeing. Most important, this relationship has been demonstrated in multi-method studies that control for shared method variance when self-ratings of personality are correlated with self-ratings of well-being (McCrae & Costa, 1991; Schimmack, Oishi, Funder, & Furr, 2004). However, the relationship between extraversion and well-being is not as strong or consistent as one would expect based on Costa and McCrae’s (1980) model. For example, McCrae and Costa failed to find evidence for this relationship in a multi-method study, and other studies that controlled for response styles also failed to find the predicted effect (Schimmack, Schupp, & Wagner, 2008).

Taking a closer look at Costa and McCrae’s (1980) article, we see that they did not include life-satisfaction measures in their study. The key empirical finding supporting their model is that extraversion facets like sociabilty measured at time 1 predict positive affect and hedonic balance (positive affect minus negative affect) concurrently and longitudinally and that these correlations remain fairly stable over time. This suggests that personality is stable and contributes to the stable variance in the affect measures. However, the effect size is small (r = .22 to .24). This suggests that extraversion accounts for about 5% of the variance in affect. This finding hardly supports the claim that extraversion accounts for half of the stable variance in well-being.

It is symptomatic of psychology that subsequent articles run with the story while ignoring gaps in the actual empirical evidence. As longitudinal studies in psychology are rare, there have been few attempts to replicate Costa and McCrae’s findings.

Headey and Wearing (1989) replicated and extended Costa and McCrae’s study by including life-satisfaction measures as an indicator of wellbeing. They replicated the key findings and showed that personality also predicts future life-satisfaction. However, the effect size for extraversion was again fairly small; as was the effect of neuroticism, suggesting that most of the stable variance in life-satisfaction is not explained by extraversion and neuroticism.

A key limitation of both studies is that they do not take shared method variance into account. Although method variance may be transient, it is also possible that it is stable over time (Anusic et al., 2009). Thus, even the already modest effect sizes may still be inflated by shared method variance.

New Evidence

Data and Model

Fortunately, better data are now available to revisit the longitudinal relationships between personality and life-satisfaction. I used the data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP). The SOEP measured the Big Five personality traits on four occasions (waves) spanning a period of 12 years (2005, 2009, 2013, 2017). Personality was measured with the 15-item BFI-S. I created a measurement model for the BFI-S that shows measurement invariance across the four occasions (Schimmack, 2019a). I also related personality to the single-item life-satisfaction rating in the SOEP (Schimmack, 2019b). Here, I extend this analysis by taking advantage of the fourth measurement of personality in 2017, which makes it possible to separate trait and state variance in personality and well-being.

The SOEP measures life-satisfaction in two ways. First, it includes several domain-satisfaction items (health, finances, recreation, housing). Second, it includes a global life-satisfaction item. In a different post (Schimmack, 2019c), I examined the relationship between these items and found that global items are influenced by a general disposition factor and satisfaction with finances and health, while the other two domains are relatively unimportant. Based on this finding and related evidence (Zou, Schimmack, & Gere, 2013), I averaged the domain satisfaction judgments and used it as an indicator of life-satisfaction. This makes it possible to remove random measurement error from the measurement of life-satisfaction on a single occasion. I then fitted latent-trait-state (LST) models to the personality factors and the well-being factor. These models separate the longitudinal correlations into two components. A stable trait component and a changing state component. A third parameter estimates how stable state variance is over time.

There are several ways to relate personality to life-satisfaction in this model. I chose to predict life-satisfaction variance on each occasion to the personality variances on the same occasion. The model indirect function can then be used to examine how much of the variance is due to stable personality traits or due to personality states.

The availability of four waves of data also makes it possible to model stability of the residual variances in personality items. Typically, these residuals are allowed to correlate to allow for item-specific stability, but the use of correlated residuals makes it impossible to relate this variance to other constructs. With four waves, it is possible to fit an LST model to item-residuals. Exploration of the data showed that the neuroticism item “worry” showed consistent relationships with well-being. Thus, I fitted an LST model to this item and allowed for an influence of worry on life-satisfaction.

The synatax and the complete results are posted on OSF (SOEP.4W.B5.DSX.LS).

Results

Overall model fit was acceptable, CFI = .967, RMSEA = .019, SRMR = .030.

Trait Variance and Stability of State Variance

Table 1 shows the amount of trait variance and the stability of state variance in the personality predictor variables. A more detailed discussion of the implications of these results for personality research can be found elsewhere (Schimmack, 2019a). The results for the Big Five serve as a comparison for the trait variance in life-satisfaction.

TraitStability1Y-Stability
Neuroticism0.690.380.790.56
Extraversion0.740.380.780.51
Openness0.710.340.760.53
Agreeableness0.680.200.670.57
Conscientiousness0.600.290.730.64
Halo0.600.360.780.63
Acquiescence0.340.110.580.81
Worry0.640.520.850.60

Table 2 shows how life-satisfaction at each time point is related to personality predictors. For model identification purposes, it is necessary to fix one relationship to zero. I used openness because meta-analysis show that it is the weakest predictor of life-satisfaction (Steel et. al., 2008). I did not impose constraints across the four waves.

LS-T1LS-T2LS-T3LS-T4
Neuroticism-0.29-0.27-0.27-0.26
Extraversion0.080.070.080.09
Openness
Agreeableness0.080.050.040.03
Conscientiousness0.040.040.040.04
Halo0.190.280.240.26
Acquiescence0.180.080.120.16
Worry-0.35-0.34-0.35-0.33

The results show that out of the Big Five, neuroticism is the only notable predictor of life-satisfaction with a moderate effect size (r = -.26 to -.29). A notable finding is that extraversion is a weak predictor of life-satisfaction (r = .07 to .09). This finding is inconsistent with Costa and McCrae’s (1980) model. The results for agreeableness and conscientiousness are also weak. This finding is inconsistent with meta-analysis and with McCrae and Costa’s (1991) suggestion that high agreeableness and conscientiousness are also instrumental for higher life-satisfaction. Both halo and acquiescence bias are stronger predictors of life-satisfaction judgments than extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Another notable finding is that the worry-facet of neuroticism is the strongest personality predictor; even stronger than the neuroticism factor (rs = -.33 to -.35). This finding is consistent with previous studies that facets of neuroticism and extraversion are better predictors of life-satisfaction than the global factors (Schimmack, Oishi, Funder, & Furr, 2004).

Table 3 shows how much of the variance in life-satisfaction is explained by trait factors that remain stable over time.

LS-T1LS-T2LS-T3LS-T4
Neuroticism0.050.050.050.05
Extraversion0.000.000.000.01
Openness
Agreeableness0.000.000.000.00
Conscientiousness0.000.000.000.00
Halo0.020.040.030.04
Acquiescence0.010.000.000.01
Worry0.080.080.080.07
Unexplained0.380.380.380.38
Total0.550.560.560.55

Given the weak effects of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, it is not surprising that these Big Five traits explain less than 1% of the variance in life-satisfaction judgments. The only notable predictor is neuroticism, which explains 5-6% of the variance. In addition, the worry facet of neuroticism is an even stronger predictor of trait variance in life-satisfaction. This finding shows that more specific traits below the Big Five add to the prediction of life-satisfaction (Schimmack, Oishi, Furr, & Funder, 2004). Halo adds only 2% and acquiescence only 1%. By far the largest portion of the trait variance was unexplained with 41% of the variance. Combined this implies that approximately half of the variance in life-satisfaction is trait variance. This finding is consistent with estimates in a meta-analysis and other analyses of the SOEP data (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016; Schimmack, Krupp, Wagner & Schupp, 2010). The estimate of 55% trait variance is also smaller than the estimate of 70% trait variance in the Big Five personality traits. This finding is also consistent with meta-analytic comparison of personality and well-being measures (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016).

Table 4 shows the results for the state-predictors of life-satisfaction. Once more extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness predict less than 1% of the variance. This time, neuroticism and worry are also relatively weak predictors because most of the relationship for this traits stems from the stable component. However, the results suggest that some changes in neuroticism and worry are related to changes in life-satisfaction. However, most of the state variance in life-satisfaction is not explained by the personality predictors (33% out of 44%).

LS-T1LS-T2LS-T3LS-T4
Neuroticism0.020.020.020.02
Extraversion0.000.000.000.00
Openness
Agreeableness0.000.000.000.00
Conscientiousness0.000.000.000.00
Halo0.010.030.020.03
Acquiescence0.020.000.010.02
Worry0.040.040.040.04
Unexplained0.330.340.340.34
Total0.440.440.440.45

Conclusion

These results challenge Costa and McCrae’s (1980) model of personality and well-being in several ways. First, extraversion is not a strong predictor of the stable variance in life-satisfaction. Second, even the influence of neuroticism accounts for only 10% of the stable trait variance in life-satisfaction. Adding other Big Five predictors also does not help because they have negligible relationships with life-satisfaction. Thus, most of the trait variance in life-satisfaction remains unexplained. It is either explained by more specific personality traits than the Big Five (facets) or by stable environmental factors (e.g., income). The SOEP data provide ample opportunity to look for additional predictors of trait variance. Also, researchers should conduct studies with broader personality questionnaires to find additional predictors of life-satisfaction. Searching for these predictors is an important area of research in an area that has stagnated over the past two decades.

Costa and McCrae’s model also underestimated the importance of state-factors. State factors are highly stable over fairly long periods of times and account for 50% of the reliable variance in life-satisfaction. As the Big Five mostly reflect stable traits, they cannot account for this important variance in life-satisfaction. Schimmack and Lucas (2010) argued that these factors are environmental factors because changes in life-satisfaction are shared between spouses. Thus, changes in actual life-circumstances may contribute to state variance in life-satisfaction. Consistent with this model, spouses were more similar in domains that are shared (housing, income) than in domains that are less shared (health, recreation).

Evidently, the conclusions are based on a single German sample. As impressive as these data are, it is important to compare results across samples from different populations. At least regarding the influence of extraversion, the present results are consistent with other studies that suggest the influence of extraversion on life-satisfaction (Kim, Schimmack, & Tsutsui, 2019). The idea that extraverts are happier has been exaggerated by Costa and McCrae’s model, while their own empirical results did not warrant this claim. The reason is that psychologists often ignore effect sizes.

Implications

The present results also have implications for developmental theories of personality. The idea of development is a process with an ideal outcome. For humans, the outcome is an adult human being with optimal capabilities. A collective of personality psychologists suggested that optimal personality development results in a personality type with optimal personality characteristics. I criticized this idea and argued that there is no such thing as an optimal personality. Just like there is no optimal height as the end-goal of human growth, there is no optimal level of extraversion or conscientiousness. In clinical psychology, the key criterion of mental health is that an intervention is beneficial for a patients’ well-being. Thus, we could argue that an optimal personality is a personality that maximizes individuals’ well-being. Meta-analyses suggests that extraveted, agreeable, and conscientious people have higher well-being. Thus, it might be beneficial for individuals to become more extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious. However, the present results challenge this view. After removing the evaluative aspect of personality from the Big Five only neuroticism remains a notable predictor of well-being. Thus, the key personality trait for self-improvement is neuroticism. Not surprisingly, this is also the key aspect that is targeted in self-help books and well-being programs. Until we have a better understanding of the relationship between personality and well-being, it seems premature to propose interventions that are aimed at changing individuals’ personality. Just like personality psychologists no longer endorse conversion therapy for sexual orientation, I urge for caution in submitting individuals who are carefree and impulsive to a conscientiousness conversion program. You never know when acting on the spur of a moment is the best course of action.

Measuring Well-Being in the SOEP

Psychology has a measurement problem. Big claims about personality, self-esteem, or well-being are based on sum-scores of self-ratings; or sometimes a single rating. This would be a minor problem if thorough validation research had demonstrated that sum-scores of self-ratings are valid measures of the constructs they are intended to represent, but such validation research is often missing. As a result, the validity of widely used measures in psychology and claims based on these measures is unknown.

The well-being literature is an interesting example of the measurement crisis because two opposing views about the validity of well-being measures co-exist. On the one hand, experimental social psychologists argue that life-satisfaction ratings are invalid and useless (Schwarz & Strack, 1999); a view that has been popularized by Noble Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking: Fast and Slow” (cf. Schimmack, 2018). On the other hand, well-being scientists often assume that life-satisfaction ratings are near perfect indicators of individuals’ well-being.

An editor of JPSP, which presumably means he or she is an expert, has no problem to mention both positions in the same paragraph without noting the contradiction.

There is a huge literature on well-being. Since Schwarz and Strack (1999), to take that arbitrary year as a starting point, there have been more than 11,000 empirical articles with “wellbeing” (or well-being or well being) in the title, according to PsychInfo. The vast majority of them, I submit, take the subjective evaluation of one’s own life as a perfectly valid and perhaps the best way to assess one’s own evaluation of one’s life. “

So, since Schwarz and Strack concluded that life-satisfaction judgments are practically useless, 11,000 articles have used life-satisfaction judgments as perfectly valid measures of life-satisfaction and nobody thinks this is a problem. No wonder, natural scientists don’t consider psychology a science.

The Validity of Well-Being Measures

Any attempt at validating well-being measures requires a definition of well-being that leads to testable predictions about correlations of well-being measures with other measures. Testing these predictions is called construct validation (Cronbach & Meehl, 1955; Schimmack, 2019).

The theory underlying the use of life-satisfaction judgments as measures of well-being assumes that well-being is subjective and that (healthy, adult) individuals are able to compare their actual lives to their ideal lives and to report the outcome of these comparison processes (Andrews & Whithey, 1973; Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell, 2009).

One prediction that follows from this model is that global life-satisfaction judgments should be correlated with judgments of satisfaction in important life domains, but not in unimportant life domains. The reason is that satisfaction with life as a whole should be related to satisfaction with (important) parts. It would make little sense for somebody to say that they are extremely satisfied with their life as a whole, but not satisfied with their family life, work, health, or anything else that matters to them. The whole point of asking a global question is the assumption that people will consider all important aspects of their lives and integrate this information into a global judgment (Andrews & Whithey, 1973). The main criticism of Schwarz and Strack (1999) was that this assumption does not describe the actual judgment process and that actual life-satisfaction judgments are based on transient and irrelevant information (e.g., current mood, Schwarz & Clore, 1983).

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Theories of Global and Domain Satisfaction

To muddy the waters, Diener (1984) proposed on the one hand that life-satisfaction judgments are, at least somewhat, valid indicators of life-satisfaction, while also proposing that correlations between satisfaction with life as a whole and satisfaction with domains might reflect a top-down effect.

A top-down effect implies that global life-satisfaction influences domain satisfaction. That is, health satisfaction is not a cause of life-satisfaction because good health is an important part of a good life. Instead, life-satisfaction is a content-free feeling of satisfaction that creates a halo in evaluations of specific life aspects independent of the specific evaluations of a life domain.

Diener overlooked that top-down processes invalidate life-satisfaction judgments as valid measures of wellbeing because a top-down model implies that global life-satisfaction judgments reflect only a general disposition to be satisfied without information about the actual satisfaction in important life domains. In the context of a measurement model, we can see that the top-down model implies that life-satisfaction judgments only capture the shared variance among specific life-satisfaction judgments, but fail to represent the part of satisfaction that reflects unique variance in satisfaction with specific life domains. In other words, top-down models imply that well-being does not encompass evaluations of the parts that make up an individuals entire life.

The problem that measurement models in psychology often consider unique or residual variances error variances that are often omitted from figures does not help. In the figure, the residual variances are shown and represent variation in life-aspects that are not shared across domains.

Some influential articles that examined top-down and bottom-up processes have argued in favor of top-down processes without noticing that this invalidates the use of life-satisfaction judgments as indicators of well-being or at least requires a radically different conception of well-being (well-being is being satisfied independent of how things are actually going in your life) (Heller, Watson, & Ilies, 2004).

An Integrative Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Model

Brief et al. (1993) proposed an integrative model of top-down and bottom-up processes in life-satisfaction judgments. The main improvement of this model was to distinguish between a global disposition to be more satisfied and a global judgment of important aspects of life. As life-satisfaction judgments are meant to represent the latter, life-satisfaction judgments are the ultimate outcome of interest, not a measure of the global disposition. Brief et al. (1993) used neuroticism as an indicator for the global disposition to be less satisfied, but there are probably other factors that can contribute to a general disposition to be satisfied. The integrative model assumes that any influence of the general disposition is mediated by satisfaction with important life domains (e.g., health).

FIGURE 1. DisSat = Dispositional Satisfaction, DS1 = Domain Satisfaction 1 (e.g., health), DS2 = Domain Satisfaction 2, DS3 = Domain Satisfaction 3, LS = Life-Satisfaction.

It is important to realize that the mediation model separates two variances in domain satisfaction judgments, namely the variance that is explained by dispositional satisfaction and the variance that is not explained by dispositional satisfaction (residual variance). Both variances contribute to life-satisfaction. Thus, objective aspects of health that contribute to health satisfaction can also influence life-satisfaction. This makes the model an integrative model that allows for top-down and bottom-up effects.

One limitation of Brief et al.’s (1993) model was the use of neuroticism as sole indicator of dispositional satisfaction. While it is plausible that neuroticism is linked to more negative perceptions of all kinds of life-aspects, it may not be the only trait that matters.

Another limitation was the use of a health satisfaction as a single life domain. If people also care about other life domains, other domain satisfactions should also contribute to life-satisfaction and they could be additional mediators of the influence of neuroticism on life-satisfaction. For example, neurotic individuals might also worry more about money and financial satisfaction could influence life-satisfaction, making financial satisfaction another mediator of the influence of neuroticism on life-satisfaction.

One advantage of structural equation modeling is the ability to study constructs that do not have a direct indicator. This makes it possible to examine top-down effects without “direct” indicators of dispositional satisfaction. The reason is that dispositional satisfaction should influence satisfaction with various life domains. Thus, dispositional satisfaction is reflected in the shared variance among different domain satisfaction judgments and domain satisfaction judgments serve as indicators that can be used to measure dispositional satisfaction (see Figure 2).

Domain Satisfactions in the SOEP

It is fortunate that the creators of the Socio-Economic Panel in the 1980s included domain satisfaction measures and that these measures have been included in every wave from 1984 to 2017. This makes it possible to test the integrative top-down bottom-up model with the SOEP data.

The five domains that have been included in all surveys are health, household income, recreation, housing, and job satisfaction. However, job satisfaction is only available for those participants who are employed. To maximize the number of domains, I used all five domains and limited the analysis to working participants. The model can be used to build a model with four domains for all participants.

One limitation of the SOEP is the use of single-item indicators. This makes sense for expensive panel studies, but creates some psychometric problems. Fortunately, it is possible to estimate the reliability of single-item indicators in panel data by using Heise’s (1969) model which estimates reliability based on the pattern of retest correlations for three waves of data.

REL = r12 * r23 / r13

More data would be better and are available, but the goal was to combine the well-being model with a model of personality ratings that are available for only three waves (2005, 2009, & 2013). Thus, the same three waves for used to create an integrative top-down bottom-up model that also examined how domain satisfaction is related to global life-satisfaction across time.

The data set consisted of 3 repeated measures of 5 domain satisfaction judgments and a single life-satisfaction judgments for a total of 18 variables. The data were analyzed with MPLUS (see OSF for syntax and detailed results https://osf.io/vpcfd/ ).

Results

Overall model fit was acceptable, CFI = .988, RMSEA = .023, SRMR = .029.

The first results are the reliability and stability estimates of the five domain satisfactions and global life satisfaction (Table 1). For comparison purposes, the last column shows the estimates based on a panel analyses with annual retests (Schimmack, Krause, Wagner, & Schupp, 2010). The results show fairly consistent stability across domains with the exception of job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is less stable than other domains. The four-year stability is high, but not as high as for personality traits (Schimmack, 2019). A comparison with the panel data shows higher stability, which indicates that some of the error variance in 4-year retest studies is reliable variance that fluctuates over the four-year retest period. However, the key finding is that there is high stability in domain satisfaction judgments and life-satisfaction judgments. which makes it theoretically interesting to examine the relationship between the stable variances in domain satisfaction and life-satisfaction.

ReliabilityStability1Y-StabilityPanel
Job Satisfaction0.620.620.89
Health Satisfaction0.670.790.940.93
Financial Satisfaction0.740.810.950.91
Housing Satisfaction0.660.810.950.89
Leisure Satisfaction0.670.800.950.92
Life Satisfaction0.660.780.940.89

Table 2 examines the influence of top-down processes on domain satisfaction. Results show the factor loadings of domain satisfaction on a common factor that reflects dispositional satisfaction; that is, a general disposition to report higher levels of satisfaction. The results show that somewhere between 30% and 50% of the reliable variance in life-satisfaction judgments is explained by a general disposition factor. While this leaves ample room for domain-specific factors to influence domain satisfaction judgments, the results show a strong top-down influence.

T1T2T3
Job Satisfaction0.690.680.68
Health Satisfaction0.680.660.65
Financial Satisfaction0.600.610.63
Housing Satisfaction0.720.740.76
Leisure Satisfaction0.610.610.61

Table 3 shows the unique contribution of the disposition and the five domains to life-satisfaction concurrently and longitudinally.

DS1-LS1DS1-LS2DS1-LS3DS2-LS2DS2-LS3DS3-LS3
Disposition0.560.590.570.610.590.60
Job 0.140.100.050.170.080.12
Health0.230.220.210.280.270.33
Finances0.340.200.140.240.180.22
Housing0.040.030.030.040.040.06
Leisure0.060.100.060.130.070.09

The first notable finding is that the disposition factor accounts for the lion share of the explained variance in life-satisfaction judgments. The second important finding is that the relationship is very stable over time. The disposition measured at time 1 is an equally good predictor of life-satisfaction at time 1 (r = .56), time 2 (r = .59), and at time 3 (r = .57). This suggests that about one-third of the reliable variance in life-satisfaction judgments reflects a stable disposition to report higher or lower levels of satisfaction.

Regarding domain satisfaction, health is the strongest predictor with correlations between .21 and .33. Finances is the second strongest predictor with correlations between .14 and .34. For health satisfaction there is high stability over time. That is, time 1 health satisfaction predicts time 1 life-satisfaction nearly as well (r = .23) as time 3 life-satisfaction (r = .21). In contrast, financial satisfactions shows a bit more change over time with concurrent correlations at time 1 of r = .34 and a drop to r = .14 for life-satisfaction at time 3. This suggests that changes in financial satisfaction produces changes in life-satisfaction.

Job satisfaction has a weak influence on life-satisfaction with correlations ranging from r = .14 to .05. Like financial satisfaction, there is some evidence that changes in job satisfaction predict changes in life-satisfaction.

Housing and leisure have hardly any influence on life-satisfaction judgments with most relationships being less than .10. There is also no evidence that changes in these domain produce changes in life-satisfaction judgments.

These results show that most of the reliable variance in global life-satisfaction judgments remains unexplained and that a stable disposition accounts for most of the explained variance in life-satisfaction judgments.

Implications for the Validity of Life-Satisfaction Judgments

There are two ways to interpret the results. One interpretation is that is common in the well-being literature and hundreds of studies with the SOEP data is that life-satisfaction judgments are valid measures of well-being. Accordingly, well-being in Germany is determined mostly by a stable disposition to be satisfied. Accordingly, changing actual life-circumstances will have negligible effects on well-being. For example, Nakazato et al. (2011) used the SOEP data to examine the influence of moving on well-being. They found that decreasing housing satisfaction triggered a decision to move and that moving produces lasting increases in housing satisfaction. However, moving had no effect on life-satisfaction. This is not surprising given the present results that housing satisfaction has a negligible influence on life-satisfaction judgments. Thus, we would conclude that people are irrational by investing money in a better house, if we assume that life-satisfaction judgments are a perfectly valid measure of well-being.

The alternative interpretation is that life-satisfaction judgments are not as good as well-being researchers think they are. Rather than reflecting a weighted summary of all important aspects of life, they are based on accessible information that does not include all relevant information. The difference to Schwarz and Strack’s (1999) criticism is that bias is not due to temporarily accessible information (e.g., mood) that makes life-satisfaction judgments unreliable. As demonstrated here and elsewhere, a large portion of the variance in life-satisfaction judgments is stable. The problem is that the stable factors may be biases in life-satisfaction ratings rather than real determinants of well-being.

It is unfortunate that psychologist and other social sciences have neglected proper validation research of a measure that has been used to make major empirical claims about the determinants of well-being, and that this research has been used to make policy recommendation (Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell, 2009). The present results suggest that any policy recommendations based on life-satisfaction ratings alone are premature. It is time to take measurement more seriously and to improve the validity of measuring well-being.