Are you really happy? Self-reported well being doesn’t match up with external observation

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In a recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers discovered that there is a huge difference between how respondents rate their own life satisfaction and how others rate it based on an interview.

During the study, which included 500 participants in various parts of Austria, participants were first asked to rate their overall satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 10.  Participants were then interviewed and given more open-ended questions about good and bad experiences, health, and other aspects of life.  Each interview was analyzed by 12 different raters and participants were placed on a new scale from 1 to 11 intended to add more depth to the distinct categories.

The new scale included the following categories:

11—Light-hearted happiness: Respondents are authentically pleased with life. Their issues tend to be small and they cope easily.

10—Light-hearted happiness with minor impairments: Respondents are mostly lighthearted. They mention negative circumstances but they don’t really impact overall mood.

9—Resilient happiness: This is similar to the previous category, except the negative circumstances have occurred in a major area of life. These people have strong coping skills and are accepting of life’s challenges.

 8—Still positive hedonic balance but impaired in central area: Similar to the previous category, but coping skills are weaker. These people are characterized by resignation (e.g. “I’ve gotten used to it”).

7—Ambiguity: These respondents reported both strong positive and negative experiences and emotions.

6—Balanced: This category is like the Ambiguity category, but less intense.

5—Small emotions/close-lipped: Known as “shallow or indifferent,” these respondents showed no strong negatives or positives.

4—Unfulfilled: Respondents are slightly negative. They show a lack of satisfaction and “seem to live a life they would not have chosen.” They justify or downplay their unmet goals and dreams.

3—Disharmonious life but with support: These respondents are “sad, burdened or stressed, but with positive resources or support.” They have problems in major life areas that impair their mood, but they still have positive experiences or people to bring them joy.

2—Disharmonious life without support: This is like the previous category, but without a positive support system. Life brings these people down, and they are not eager about the future.

1—Dominant depression: Characterized by total despair, unhappiness, hopelessness and dissatisfaction with life’s circumstances.

After conducting and analyzing the interviews, researchers found that there were extreme discrepancies between how respondents self-rated their life satisfaction and how they reported their lives in a narrative to the raters. For instance, only 15 people self-rated their satisfaction at a 5 or worse, but external raters gave 40 people ratings of 5 or lower.  Even more surprising—only 6 of those low-rated cases matched.

The team found that people tended to rate their satisfaction very highly, but when interviewed, described dissatisfaction and unhappiness that led to lower ratings by the researchers.

“Considering what people actually report in the interview, some high ratings seem to mainly express that their burden was not worse than normal, unbearable or as a reason to complain,” said Ivo Ponocny, corresponding author of the study.

One respondent rated her life satisfaction as a 10—the highest possible score—but raters put her in category 3—“disharmonious life but with support.”  The respondent repeatedly complained of dissatisfaction with her work/life balance and regretted having kids too young, but also expressed appreciation for her supportive husband.

Not only did self-reports not line up with external ratings, but different raters tended to also rate the same respondent differently. There was little reliable correlation between ratings overall.

“Assuming that the interviews create a valid impression of life at all, the ratings obviously do not mean the same to the subject and the observer,” noted Ponocny.

Future research is clearly needed to help scientists develop a better understanding of how to reliably measure life satisfaction. One thing is clear from the study, however—people tend to egregiously overinflate their own reports of life satisfaction.  It may be because of pressure to sound positive, fear of complaining, or as a defense mechanism.

“Good ratings should not be misinterpreted by researchers as indicating lives full of positive emotional experience, at least concerning some part of the population,” Ponocny said. “Doing so will…artificially overestimate well-being.”

More research and a better understanding of satisfaction with life will help scientists be able to pinpoint ways to help and support those who are suffering.