Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 3 Looking at Well-being Data in Context

Mental States (or Subjective Well-being)

Subjective well-being is ‘an umbrella term’1 which covers three strands of a person’s self-assessment of their happiness levels: life satisfaction, mood and meaning. The whole of Chap. 4 is about subjective well-being, so we only cover it briefly here. The term can also, confusingly, be used to just describe mood or happiness, rather than necessarily encompassing all concepts. Subjective well-being can be measured in various ways, like asking people about their happiness in any given moment, or about how satisfied they feel with their life overall. Along with preference satisfaction, subjective well-being measures have been thought to be more democratic than objective lists2, because they allow people to decide how well they are doing, without someone else assigning a level of well-being to them on their behalf. We will come to people deciding their own well-being later.

The above ‘accounts’ of well-being have been formulated with quantitative data in mind, collected through large samples and national-level surveys. It is these data that are used most in decision-making, especially in policy. However, other kinds of data allow you to derive preference satisfaction, subjective well-being—even objective lists. These methods collect people’s own accounts of well-being from them on a smaller scale. Various methods can be used, like interviews or diaries, and are designed to understand how people’s lives work in more detail. Owing to the smaller scale of these projects, they are more available to the researcher who does not have the resources of the United Nations (UN) or a national statistics office to understand well-being at national or regional levels. These methods also tend to present more detail about specific people and contexts, and so are often better for a project that wants to understand the well-being of the staff of an organisation or, perhaps, how one thing affects a small group of people in great depth. It is also especially useful for understanding people’s lives and experiences in the everyday.

As we touched on earlier in the chapter, there is a history of researchers gathering around their own preference for qualitative or quantitative approaches. This can result in habitual silos of research and a history of squabbling over the value of one kind of data over another. The tradition of a divide tends to obscure the fact you can make the most of both worlds. It is possible to take a mixed methods approach to research, using both qualitative and quantitative data generated by various methods. There are also ways of collecting data that can result in both sorts of data. Many surveys offer a chance to answer using tick boxes and text. What should be at the forefront of any research is what is most appropriate to the context of collection and the question at hand. We shall think a little bit more about everyday contexts of data in the next section.

  1. Hicks 2011, 3 []
  2. Graham 2010 []