We began this series of blog posts in July by asking the question – what is well-being? It was one worth asking, particularly at the outset, as 10 random people on the street would most likely offer 10 different answers if the question was put to them. That wouldn’t necessarily cause any problems in general life, but headaches would invariably follow if a team of psychologists – or any other professionals – were engaged in a research endeavour while entertaining different, and perhaps even conflicting, definitions of well-being.
So, in the first instance it is important to come up with an agreed definition of well-being at the outset of any research project. However, that is only part of the battle. Even if you have a team of academic psychologists who all agree on what they are referring to when they use the term, you must also then give consideration to how you are going to measure it.
In quantitative research, participants will frequently be asked to complete a range of questionnaires, depending upon what variables the researchers are looking to measure. A classic approach in experimental research is to ask participants to complete relevant questionnaires at the outset of the process, immediately after the conclusion of an intervention programme designed to either increase or reduce scores on those variables, and, if the research is longitudinal in nature, to check-in again over time, perhaps months and maybe even years later.
The logic of the process is that if we have an active group (those who receive an intervention programme) and a control group (those who do not) and all complete the relevant questionnaires at the different data gathering moments, if differences are detected between the groups over time (compared to the baseline scores), then it can be suggested with reasonable confidence (but not absolute certainty) that the key factor behind those differences was assignment to the active or control condition. Of course, at least as often as not, no differences might be detected, but we usually hear less about such studies, as they tend not to end up being published in academic journals!
So, that’s the basic logic of why measurement is important in quantitative psychological research. In essence, we need to be able to measure variables of interest in order to manipulate them. How we ensure that these questionnaires measure what it is that we are seeking to measure is another matter entirely, and not a topic that we need to get into. Suffice it to say, researchers are cognisant of that point and any proposed new questionnaire is subjected to a rigorous process of validation before being approved for use ‘in the field’.
With regard to well-being, there are any number of questionnaires currently in use, measuring relevant variables.
In recent decades, the explosion of interest in happiness as a research topic has been paralleled by an increase in the number of relevant questionnaires coming on-stream and entering general use.
One of the most well-known questionnaires used to measure happiness is the Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS), created by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Heidi Lepper, and first published in 1999. This is a very short questionnaire, being comprised of just four items. This is a plus, as it means that participants can complete it very quickly, and results can be entered into whatever statistical package is being used promptly, which is a key consideration, as you may be working with several hundred different sets of answers. Usually, in quantitative research, participants will be asked to complete multiple questionnaires in a single sitting. This means that you will be cognisant of the time involved, and if you are able to include at least a few short measures in the overall packet, then you will certainly look to do so.
The SHS includes four statements, and participants are asked to rate how well they think each statement applies to them on a scale of one to seven. This means that the maximum score is 28. The official advice is to then divide this figure by four to provide the final score. Statements participants are asked to consider focus on how happy you feel yourself to be, how happy you feel you are relative to your peers, the extent to which you enjoy life no matter what is going on around you, and if you feel you are generally lacking on the happiness front, without necessarily being depressed.
As you might have noticed when reading the above, three of the four items are worded in a positive way, while the fourth has negative wording. This impacts upon the scoring system, with that item being ‘reverse scored’, e.g., anyone who ticks ‘1’ here is suggesting the sentiment doesn’t relate to them at all and the scorer will then reverse that into a ‘7’.
Items that require reverse scoring are a staple in questionnaires. They serve many purposes, not least of which being that it lets the researcher know if the person completing a questionnaire has been paying attention and taking the exercise seriously. For example, with the SHS, it would make very little sense for someone to tick ‘7’ for all items, as to do so for the fourth would contradict the earlier answers. This can, in turn, lead to distorted results, particularly so when a reversed item is included in a short questionnaire. Depending upon the circumstances, if a participant was to offer the contradictory four ‘7’s for the SHS, your response might be to exclude their answers from the statistical analysis.
As with any other approach, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with using self-report questionnaires in psychological research, but the former outweigh the latter, and such instruments are an invaluable tool. Measurement is crucial, particularly when looking at an area like well-being. If psychologists are testing approaches designed to cultivate well-being – such as the counting blessings gratitude intervention we focused on a in a recent post – an element of measurement is vital. How could researchers test the effectiveness of a counting blessings intervention without using questionnaires to measure relevant well-being-related variables, such as gratitude itself?
For reasons such as this, questionnaires have been a perennial tool utilised by psychologists in research settings, and will most likely continue to be so well into the future.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.