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22 Mar, 2013

Methodology Emerges to Help Track How Holidays Can Make People Happy

PARIS – The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has published what is claimed to be the first “Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being.” Essentially a technical document designed to help track what is originally known as Gross National Happiness, it can easily be used by tourism researchers and statisticians as a template to chart how holidays can contribute to happiness. If that can be done, it will raise the value of the travel & tourism industry to an entirely new paradigm, beyond just visitor numbers and average expenditure as well as meaningless slogans like “travelism” and “total visitor economy”.

Measuring well-being is now gaining currency worldwide because it offers a completely different set of parameters beyond the cold calculus of Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product. IN TODAY’S UNSTABLE AND FAST-PACED WORLD, Tow much an economy is generating in terms of products and services is  seen as having little relevance to people’s quality of life. The poor may have fewer material possessions and less money but they may be far happier than their richer brethren. In that context, one of the enumerators that the OECD identifies is a package of 10 domains that can be measured, viz.,:

  1. Standard of living.
  2. Health status.
  3. Achievement in life.
  4. Personal relationships.
  5. Personal safety.
  6. Feeling part of a community.
  7. Future security.
  8. Time to do what you like doing.
  9. Quality of the environment.
  10. Your job (for the employed).

Although all are relevant in one way or another to the travel & tourism industry, including those who work in it, the most important one is possibly time (8). Holidays are how people revamp the way they spend their time, mainly in order to upgrade their happiness levels and rebalance their well-being. The report mentions holidays but as normal weekend or long-weekend holidays from work, not in terms of vacations or extended breaks. However, expanding that concept is not a problem, and if ways can be found of measuring the result, based on the OECD draft methodology, it will revolutionise marketing strategies used by destinations and suppliers of products and services. The “evaluation forms” and “customer feedback” forms handed out at the end of tours and hotel stays will take on a new meaning.

It will no longer be about evaluating “satisfaction” but “well-being” and “happiness.” For policy-makers and politicians, that becomes a game-changer.

According to the OECD, the Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being “establish the first comprehensive framework for internationally comparable and intellectually robust data on this topic. These Guidelines provide advice on the collection and use of measures of subjective well-being, and will allow statisticians and researchers to better measure how individuals evaluate and experience their lives.”

The Guidelines, developed under the OECD’s Better Life Initiative, stem from the growing interest in looking beyond traditional ways of measuring economic performance to provide a broader picture of social progress.

For Martine Durand, the OECD’s Chief Statistician, measures of subjective well-being have the potential to play an important role to inform decision making. “Subjective well-being data can provide an important complement to other indicators already used for monitoring and benchmarking counties performance, for guiding people’s choices, and for designing and delivering policies.”

But she insisted that subjective well-being can only tell part of the story. “To provide a fuller picture, subjective well-being data must be examined alongside information on more objective aspects of life,” she added.

The OECD’s Your Better Life Index offers an example of the wider picture. It aims to measure how societies are faring in a number of areas – from jobs, health and housing through to civic engagement and subjective well-being – and allows citizens to determine which of these are most important to their own well-being.

The definition of subjective well-being used in the Guidelines extends beyond the idea of ‘happiness’ to cover three elements:

(+) Life evaluation – reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it.

(+) Affect – a  person’s feelings or  emotional states, typically measured with reference to  shorter time periods

(+) Eudemonia – a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

According to the OECD, “The Guidelines are intended to be used as a resource for data producers developing their own surveys, but also include sections that will be more relevant to potential users of subjective well-being data such as policy analysts and economists.”

The guidelines discuss the reliability and validity of subjective well-being measurement as well as methodological issues such as the nature of surveys used and the design, order and wording of questions. Recommendations are provided on reporting and analysing the data collected and ways of mitigating the effect of various sources of bias. Examples of surveys and prototype questions are also included.

Further information about the Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being or about the OECD’s Better Life Initiative are available from Conal Smith of the OECD’s Statistics Division (tel.: + 331 45 24 97 05); the OECD’s Media Division (tel.: +331 45 24 81 03) or click here to Download the Complete Guidelines FREE

Foreword by Martine Durand, OECD Chief Statistician, Director of the OECD Statistics Directorate

Understanding and improving well-being requires a sound evidence base that can inform policy- makers and citizens alike where, when, and for whom life is getting better. These Guidelines have been produced under the OECD’s Better Life Initiative – a pioneering project launched in 2011, which aims to measure society’s progress across eleven domains of well-being, ranging from income, jobs, health, skills and housing, through to civic engagement and the environment. Subjective well-being – i.e. how people think about and experience their lives – is an important component of this overall framework. To be most useful to governments and other decision-makers, however, subjective well-being data need to be collected with large and representative samples and in a consistent way across different population groups and over time.

These Guidelines mark an important turning point in our knowledge of how subjective well- being can, and should, be measured. Not long ago, the received wisdom was that “we don’t know enough” about subjective well-being to build it into measures of societal progress. However, as the evidence documented in these Guidelines shows, we in fact know a lot – perhaps more than we realised until we gathered all the relevant material for this report – and in particular that measures of subjective well-being are capable of capturing valid and meaningful information.

However, like all self-reported measures, survey-based measures of subjective well-being, are sensitive to measurement methodology. A large part of this report is therefore devoted to explaining some of the key measurement issues that both data producers and users need to know about. Comparable data require comparable methods, and a degree of standardisation that will require both determination and co-operation to achieve.

Subjective well-being data can provide an important complement to other indicators already used for monitoring and benchmarking countries performance, for guiding people’s choices, and for designing and delivering policies. Measures of subjective well-being show meaningful associations with a range of life circumstances, including the other dimensions of well-being explored in the Better Life Initiative. However, because a variety of factors affect how people experience and report on their lives, including factors such as psychological resilience in the face of adversity, and potential cultural and linguistic influences that are not currently well-understood, subjective well-being can only tell part of a person’s story. These data must therefore be examined alongside information about more objective aspects of well-being, to provide a full and rounded picture of how life is.

As for any new area of statistics, there is still much to be learned. These guidelines set out what we currently know about good practice. Research on both the measurement and the determinants of subjective well-being is rapidly advancing. As our knowledge grows, good practice will need to be updated. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise just how far we have come in recent years. These Guidelines represent the first attempt to provide international recommendations on data collection, including some prototype question modules. Although this report is more of a beginning than an end, I believe it represents an important step forward.

Excerpts from the report

What is subjective well-being?

The measurement of subjective well-being is often assumed to be restricted to measuring “happiness”. In fact, subjective well-being covers a wider range of concepts than just happiness. For the purposes of these guidelines, a relatively broad definition of subjective well-being is used. In particular, subjective well-being is taken to be:

Good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.

This definition is intended to be inclusive, encompassing the full range of different aspects of subjective well-being commonly identified by reaserch in this field. It includes first and foremost measures of how people experience and evaluate their life as a whole. However, the guidelines also provide advice on measuring people’s experience and evaluations of particular domains of life, such as satisfaction with their financial status or satisfaction with their health status, as well as measures of “meaningfulness” or “purpose” in life (often described as “eudaimonic” aspects of subjective well-being). This definition of subjective well-being hence encompasses three elements:

● Life evaluation – a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it.

● Affect – a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to a particular point in time.

● Eudaimonia – a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

The guidelines do not address subjective measures of objective concepts, such as self-rated health or perceived air quality. While the measurement tools for questions of this sort are “subjective”, the subject matter being investigated is not, i.e. it can be observed by a third party. Some advice is provided, however, on measuring people’s evaluations of specific domains of life, such as their satisfaction with their financial status or their health status. What is specific about the concept of subjective well-being as presented in this report, is that only the person under investigation can provide information on their evaluations, emotions and psychological functioning – it is people’s own views that are the subject of interest.

Why have these guidelines been produced?

Notions of subjective well-being or happiness have a long tradition as central elements of quality of life. However, until recently, these concepts were often deemed beyond the scope of quantitative measurement. In the past two decades, however, an increasing body of evidence has shown that subjective well-being can be measured in surveys, that such measures are valid and reliable, and that they can inform policy making. This evidence has been reflected in the exponential growth of research in this field.

Reflecting the increasing interest in subjective well-being from both researchers and policy-makers, the Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (Stiglitz et al., 2009) recommended that national statistical agencies collect and publish measures of subjective well-being. In particular, the Commission noted that:

Recent research has shown that it is possible to collect meaningful and reliable data on subjective well-being. Subjective well-being encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry). While these aspects of subjective well-being have different determinants, in all cases these determinants go well beyond people’s income and material conditions… All these aspects of subjective well-being should be measured separately to derive a more comprehensive measure of people’s quality of life and to allow a better understanding of its determinants (including people’s objective conditions). National statistical agencies should incorporate questions on subjective well-being in their standard surveys to capture people’s life evaluations, hedonic experiences and life priorities (p. 216).

Following on from the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, an increasing number of statistical agencies have launched initiatives aimed at measuring subjective well-being.

While subjective well-being has been examined extensively in the academic literature, including some consideration of which subjective well-being measures to collect, and how to collect them, no consistent set of guidelines for national statistical agencies drawing on this research currently exist. For official measures of subjective well-being to be useful, these official measures should be collected in a consistent manner, which, in turn, requires a consensus on the best methodology to adopt. This is the main motivation for developing commonly accepted guidelines around the measurement of subjective well-being that draw on the best evidence available so far. These guidelines will need to be revised in the future as more information becomes available on subjective well-being.

What is next?

These guidelines do not aim to provide the “final word’ on the measurement of subjective well-being. Although some aspects of the measurement of subjective well-being – such as questions on overall satisfaction with life – are well understood, other potentially important measures currently draw on much weaker evidence bases. It is expected that the evidence base on subjective well-being will develop rapidly over the next few years. In particular, to the extent that national statistical offices start regularly collecting and publishing data on subjective well-being, many methodological questions are likely to be resolved as better data becomes available, and an increasing body of knowledge will accumulate on the policy uses of subjective well-being data.

It is envisaged that these guidelines will be followed up by a review of progress on the measurement of subjective well-being over the next few years, with a view to deciding whether the guidelines need revising and whether it is possible and desirable to move towards a greater degree of international standardisation. The intent is that this review will build on information collected by national statistical agencies, and will consider the feasibility of moving towards a more formal international standard for the measurement of subjective well-being.