Beyond money: Measuring quality of life for individuals and society

While economic measures are often used to determine standards of living, measurements of well-being better reflect both people's wealth and human-rights situations, stated researchers on 20 February at the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Diego.

The results could have important implications for policy decisions, said Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. "We need national accounts of well-being, so they can be used in decision-making," he said.

Diener explained that measurements of well-being can be broken down into "life-satisfaction" and "enjoyment of life." Furthermore, he said these measures should complement economic measures such as gross domestic product (GDP) when assessing whether policies will have an overall positive or negative impact on people's lives.

Economic indices measure the value of goods produced and services provided, but do not take into account negative consequences of those activities, such as environmental damage caused by industrial advances.

Unemployment also has hidden consequences, according to Diener. Job loss causes a decrease in happiness that lasts even after people have secured a new job. The finding could help inform policymakers faced with a choice between creating inflation or unemployment.

John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia, agreed. "GDP is too simplistic," he said, because it does not describe factors such as corruption in government and business.

At the individual level, people can affect their own well-being through simple actions, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, who conducts research on how positive behaviors can increase quality of life.

She said actions such as keeping a "gratitude journal," in which subjects record things they are thankful for, or performing acts of kindness for others, are practices people can do to produce lasting increases in their happiness levels.

While social scientists have already shown positive effects associated with these interventions, Lyubomirsky explored why and how these interventions work. She found, for example, that individuals keeping gratitude journals were much more likely to increase their overall happiness when journaling once a week, as opposed to three times a week. She speculated that when subjects did the gratitude journal three times a week it "might become a chore," causing it to be less effective.

Social scientists also have previously shown that performing acts of kindness for others increases well-being. In her studies, Lyubomirsky found that doing a variety of good deeds, rather than repeating the same action, had the greatest impact. In other words, it didn't help people to do the same or even similar acts of kindness over and over again—it was when people helped others in a variety of ways that they increased their own happiness levels the most.

"If you want to be happier, you want to spice up what you do," said Lyubomirsky.

Lyubomirsky cautioned that not every activity works for every person. For example, in terms of gratitude journals, she said that personally, "I find them trite and hokey." That's why it's important to find an intervention that fits well for each person, she said.

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Matthew Scult is a senior at Brown University, majoring in neuroscience. He co-founded an interdisciplinary group at Brown aimed at communicating academic work to diverse audiences and hopes to pursue a career related to this goal. Reach him at mascult@gmail.com.

Feb. 24, 2010

Amplify the signal