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Experimental Diaries Give Insight Into Well-Being

Find that daily activites strongly affect quality of life

THURSDAY, Dec. 2, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Measuring the well-being of a nation isn't as simple as figuring out a country's gross domestic product. But a team of economists and psychologists has developed a new method that they believe can capture the effects that life experiences have on quality of life.

Called the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), this tool measures what people do with their time and how those activities make people feel.

"This is an alternative to measuring how people are doing. There are lots of people characterizing well-being by asking global questions, and we're concerned that lots of other factors are coming into play," said one of the study's authors, Arthur Stone, professor and vice chairman of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

For example, Stone pointed out that most people respond positively to a question such as "Do you enjoy your children?" But when asked a more specific question about "taking care" of their children, which implies more of the mundane work involved in child-rearing, people rank it as one of the least desirable activities, just above housework and working, he said.

Results of the study appear in the Dec. 3 issue of Science.

People using DRM are asked to write down what happened during the previous day. They are told to include in their descriptions who they were with, where they were, what they were doing, and how the experience made them feel.

Stone said it takes about 45 minutes to get all this information down, but he thinks the result is "similar to what you get from a day's worth of real-time monitoring." And, he added, "This provides a way of getting this information from lots of people."

Currently, getting such information from a lot of people would be quite costly. The common measure used to capture such information is an experience sample, which prompts people randomly throughout the day to stop what they're doing, write it down, and describe how they're feeling at that very moment. This method is very labor-intensive and costly.

Stone and his colleagues asked 909 women to use DRM for a day. The average age of the women was 38, and their average income was nearly $55,000. Forty-nine percent were white, 24 percent were black, and 22 percent were Hispanic.

The activities enjoyed the most were relaxing with friends, having lunch with co-workers, watching TV alone, shopping with a spouse, and cooking alone. Being with their boss and commuting alone were the activities they enjoyed the least.

The researchers also looked at the effect that activities could have on overall well-being. They found that getting enough sleep had a direct impact on quality of life. Time pressure at work could also reduce overall well-being, the study found.

Finally, the researchers compared their results to previous results from experience sampling. They found that patterns throughout the day were similar using DRM and experience sampling. For example, women reported being tired at roughly the same points in the day using both methods.

"One day can be variable," said Stone, "[but we'll] do this with large numbers of people, and that's where a lot of the power comes from."

One use for this information could be to create a National Well-Being Account, according to the authors.

"Currently, our main measure of national well-being is national income. This is clearly an incomplete measure," said another study author, Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

"To provide a more comprehensive picture of well-being, we have been trying to develop National Well-Being Accounts, in which individuals provide self-evaluations of how they experience their daily lives. We can then see how changes in the way people allocate their time affects their well-being," said Krueger, who added that the information could also be used to compare groups of people.

Stone, however, pointed out that this research is just the first step, and more needs to be done.

"This is an interesting idea, but it seems that it's a relatively preliminary use of the measure," said Dr. Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming book, Spirituality and the Healthy Mind: Science, Therapy and the Need for Personal Meaning.

What's most important about the study, he said, is that it points out "that there are different ways of looking at well-being, and how people feel about their lives is as important as some economic measures that are generally used."

More information

For information on maintaining good mental health, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCES: Arthur Stone, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of psychiatry, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y.; Alan Krueger, Ph.D., professor of economics and public affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.; Marc Galanter, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director, division of alcoholism and drug abuse, New York University School of Medicine, and author, Spirituality and the Healthy Mind: Science, Therapy and the Need for Personal Meaning, July 2005; Dec. 3, 2004 Science
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