Wellbeing is central to career success and productivity in the workplace. Amanda Henwood et al challenge existing research conclusions that the duration of daily activities contributes to overall wellbeing and explores the implications on future research. Is there a defect in popular wellbeing measures, and what are the implications for further research?
Increasing wellbeing for work or personal life, depends on access to accurate underlying research on happiness. Spending a longer time in happy activities should make us happier overall. A wealth of wellbeing interventions are structured around this basic principle; they promote the idea that spending a longer time doing the things we like can make us feel better. After all, controlling what we do has always been far easier than controlling what we feel. Yet, in our new article for Scientific Reports, we find that duration – surprisingly – doesn’t contribute to happiness at all.
What do we mean by happiness?
Happiness, otherwise known as subjective wellbeing (SWB), refers to how people think and feel about their lives and their everyday experiences. It is typically measured as a function of happiness reports (intensity) over time (duration). Two of the most popular measures of SWB are Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) and The Day Reconstruction Method. EMA randomly prompts individuals to report of their current happiness, the activity they are engaged in at that time, and its duration, throughout the day. DRM takes a similar format but instead of obtaining these reports in the moment, it asks people to list the activities they engaged in that day, alongside their associated happiness and duration reports the following morning.
Happiness […] refers to how people think and feel about their lives and their everyday experiences
What happened during the study?
Using a custom-made wellbeing app, we gathered daily SWB reports from participants using both EMA and DRM methods over the course of two to four weeks. We used two different samples: one mixed (diverse, multi-national panel) and one student (London School of Economics sample). Participants entered the study in phases which took place between May and September in 2018 (mixed panel) and December 2018 and March 2019 (student study).
How did we reach the conclusion that time doesn’t matter?
To assess the contribution of time to overall SWB we computed duration and non-duration weighted SWB scores for both EMA and DRM reports. We then directly compared both score types and discovered that irrespective of whether duration was accounted for in overall SWB reports, overall SWB remained the same. This result is robust against differences in SWB measurement, SWB calculation method (average of daily or total reports), high/low happiness experiences, as well as different demographic and interpersonal characteristics.
Further tests suggest that the low correlation between happiness intensity and duration reports is predominantly driving the result; reports with higher correlations (positive or negative) between intensity and duration yield larger differences in duration weighted and non-weighted SWB scores.
What does this mean?
This suggests that accounting for the time people spend in happy activities makes little difference to their overall happiness. The first implication of this is that researchers may not need to bother gathering time related information, if its only purpose in the study it to measure SWB. A more serious implication is the suggestion that current measures are failing to capture the importance of time for happiness, since it is a substantive fact that a longer time spend in happy experiences will result in higher overall SWB.
Accounting for the time people spend in happy activities makes little difference to their overall happiness
It may be that the variation associated with activities duration is so weakly correlated with the variation associated with activity happiness because the activities themselves do not generate the happiness associated with them. Instead, it is possible that happiness levels are carried over from previous emotional experiences and thus the duration of people’s happiness is not captured by activity duration. For example, although you may report feeling 4/10 happiness whilst commuting, that feeling might have been influenced by how you felt just before you started commuting. This “emotional lag” across activities means that the duration of this emotional episode may not be captured completely by focusing on commuting alone. If this emotion was not directly connected to another reported activity, then current SWB measures will fail to pick up on this important information. However, this is just a theory for now and future research is necessary to explore this possibility.
It is possible that happiness levels are carried over from previous emotional experiences and thus the duration of people’s emotional experiences are not adequately captured by activity duration
Is there a solution?
Technology is moving fast, and affective computing offers some promise in helping to better capture the duration associated with people’s emotional experiences. It can be used to detect other factors that may increase the variability of emotion duration, such as emotional triggers. For example, studies using smartwatches that detect heart beats and light exposure have found that happiness has an important association with these parameters. Studies that partner new technology with new measures – to explore whether doing so can increase the association between happiness intensity and duration – will be of immense benefit in exploring this premise.
- This blog post was based on a study by Amanda Henwood, João Guerreiro, Aleksandar Matic and Paul Dolan.
- This blog post expresses the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured Image by Suzana Sousa on Unsplash
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