Accounting for the richness of daily activities

Title: Accounting for the richness of daily activities
Authors: White, Mathew P. and Dolan, Paul
Publisher: Psychological Science, 20 (8). pp. 1000-1008
ISSN: 0956-7976
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Abstract: Serious consideration is being given to the impact of private behavior and public policies on people’s subjective well-being (SWB). A new approach to measuring well-being, the day reconstruction method (DRM), weights the affective component of daily activities by their duration in order to construct temporal aggregates. However, the DRM neglects the potentially important role of thoughts. By adapting this method to include thoughts as well as feelings, we provide perhaps the most comprehensive measure of SWB to date. We show that some activities relatively low in pleasure (e.g., work and time with children) are nonetheless thought of as rewarding and therefore contribute to overall SWB. Such information may be important to policymakers wishing to promote behaviors that are conducive to a broader conception of SWB. In general terms, there are three approaches to assessing how well people’s lives are going. The first focuses on a range of objective indicators (e.g., freedoms and liberties, health and education level; Nussbaum & Sen, 1993). The second concerns the degree to which people are able to satisfy their desires, as (albeit somewhat badly) indexed by income (Griffin, 1986; Harsanyi, 1982). The third focuses on subjective well-being (SWB) and is generally defined as how people think and feel about their lives (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). There is considerable debate about how to weight these three kinds of measures, but all are important, especially for policy purposes (Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell, 2008; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Dolan & Kahneman, 2008; Dolan & White, 2007). Rather than address this issue here, we focus on the comprehensiveness of measures of SWB. Much of the research on SWB that has involved large samples has investigated the thinking, or evaluative, component, focusing on judgments of overall life satisfaction (Dolan, Peasgood, & White, 2008). Research concerning the moment-to-moment feelings, or affect, associated with specific activities has largely been confined to smaller samples because of practical considerations (Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007). Both approaches have tended to neglect how long people spend in activities associated with these thoughts and feelings, and this is a potentially serious omission because “time is the ultimate finite resource and the question of how well people spend it is a legitimate issue in the study of well-being” (Kahneman, Schkade, Fischler, Krueger, & Krilla, 2008, p. 11). In response to this concern, Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, and Stone (2004) developed the day reconstruction method (DRM). This approach brings together measures that examine the feelings associated with specific activities (Hektner et al., 2007) with measures of how people spend their time (e.g., Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006; Juster & Stafford, 1985). Specifically, it asks people to recall their previous day and divide it into episodes “like a series of scenes in a film”; for each episode, they record its duration, what they were doing, who they were with, and how they were feeling (using adjectives such as “happy” and “anxious”). In this way, the DRM allows subjective assessments of feelings to be weighted by their duration to derive a “hedonic calculus” for each episode and ultimately a person’s affective profile for an entire day. Because information about an entire day can be gathered at one time, responses can be obtained from reasonably large samples. However, the DRM has one major weakness: its focus on feelings. This has produced a number of puzzling and contentious findings. For instance, the data suggest that people spend considerable amounts of time in activities that provide relatively little SWB, such as commuting and spending time with their children. Richer people spend more time commuting, and Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, and Stone (2006) suggested that this fact partly explains why income has a small effect on feelings. The relatively low levels of positive feelings reported for spending time with children are claimed to be a more accurate reflection of experience than belief-based generic judgments, such as “I enjoy my kids” (Kahneman et al., 2004). However, it is possible that driving to work or playing with one’s children brings SWB benefits that are not captured by measures of feelings alone. These activities may be absorbing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), have purpose (Ryff, 1989; Seligman, 2002), connect one to other people (Ryan & Deci, 2001), and contribute to important personal goals (Cantor & Sanderson, 1999). In other words, commuting and spending time with one’s children may be thought of as rewarding and may contribute to one’s SWB every bit as much as some of the more pleasurable activities (like sex and watching TV) appear to. It may be entirely rational and reasonable for people to choose activities that generate relatively low levels of moment-to-moment affect if this outcome is compensated for by positive evaluations. The aim of the research we report here, then, was to provide a more complete account of SWB that captures feelings, thoughts, and their duration.