What Works Wellbeing operated from 2014 to 2024. This website is a static repository of all assets captured at closure on 30 April. It will remain publicly accessible but will not be updated.  Read more
Nov 10, 2017 | by Tricia

If you want to know how happy we are, ask often

Wellbeing measures are robust and useful; how can we improve them further to help organisations create the conditions that really improve people’s lives in a sustainable way?  In our Measuring Wellbeing series we share the ideas of leaders in the field of wellbeing measurement.

You can read a counter-argument in defence of using a single measure to determine overall life satisfaction in Richard Layard’s Discussion paper A Common Currency

Today we publish a new discussion series paper, that sets out the views of Paul Dolan, Laura Kudrna and Stefano Testoni on the importance of ‘in the moment’ wellbeing and measurement for understanding – and acting on- wellbeing evidence.

Researchers Paul Dolan, Laura Kudrna and Stefano Testoni argue, in their paper Definitions and Measures of Subjective Wellbeing, that to capture what really matters to people, we need to switch from measuring overall life satisfaction, to how we feel in the moment.

Before we explore more about ‘in the moment’ wellbeing, it’s worth summarising what Dolan and his co-authors set out as the problems with evaluating life satisfaction by asking people to make ‘global and retrospective evaluations of their life and experiences’ as with the ONS 4 wellbeing questions:

So, rather than use questions about our overall wellbeing, which the authors say will return an incomplete and distorted picture, they argue that we can only get insights to how we are really doing, and what really matters to us in our daily lives, by asking how we feel in the moment while carrying out different activities.

In research, this can be done in several ways noted in the paper, but essentially it involves asking people in experimental or real world settings to continuously report on their feelings as they are engaged in an activity.

What does the research tell us?

In a nutshell, the paper argues that when we look at how people feel moment to moment, we find that the activities they do predict the way they feel; when we look at how people evaluate their life, instead, life circumstances, like income, health, employment, matter much more. This is because people experience their life all the time, but only evaluate it sometimes, and we should care about the frequency with which people are doing well or badly to get a clearer and more accurate picture. 

For example, when we ask about life satisfaction we know that:

  1. those who are employed have higher wellbeing than the unemployed
  2. those who take part in music, or some sport, also have higher wellbeing 

However, holding everything else constant, the link between wellbeing and music or sport is much smaller than being employed.

But, and this is where Dolan and his co-authors’ argument matters,  when we ask people to rate their wellbeing in the moment, things reverse: music and singing, or physical activity, is more important than unemployment for predicting people’s assessments of happiness or purpose.

When you ask people periodically as they are doing things, our analysis shows that there is no difference in the happiness between young people in or out of work when they’re playing a game of football or dancing or whatever other activity. When using these momentary self-assessments, we can see wellbeing increasing during physical activity, then reducing again afterwards.

This is probably because measuring wellbeing in the moment can reduce comparisons with social norms – like income levels – and focusses purely on how someone feels throughout the course of a day, during different activities.

How would you do this in practice?

For policymakers, the crux of the paper’s argument is that a valid measure of wellbeing needs to take into account how long our happiness, anxiety, worthwhileness and other feelings last, as well as how intense they are.

Someone who reports feeling happy throughout the day is happier than someone who reports feeling happy for only one moment in the day. Measures of wellbeing fit for policy purposes and central to establishing what works to improve people’s lives should be able to directly capture the flow of wellbeing over time.

This is of course more expensive. If you thought it was challenging enough implementing a 10-question survey to respondents every six months, you won’t relish the thought of asking people every half an hour, or asking them to make a diary of their previous day. But this method doesn’t need to be used for everyone. A few high-quality studies breaking down people’s day and their activities may be all that we need to understand how best we use our time.

View all the papers in our Measuring Wellbeing discussion series

What are your views? How would this work for your organisation?


Practice Examples
Nov 19, 2014
National Citizen Service
Nov 2, 2021 | By Dr Anna Alexandrova and Dr Mark Fabian
A theory of thriving for people living in financial hardship: Findings from a co-production exercise
Guest Blog
Sep 22, 2022 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Children’s wellbeing in the UK 2022
Guest Blog

[gravityform id=1 title=true description=true ajax=true tabindex=49]