Global Reports of Well-Being Overestimate Aggregated Daily States of Well-Being

Researchers can characterize people’s well-being by asking them to provide global evaluations of large parts of their life at one time or by obtaining repeated assessments during their daily lives. Global evaluations are reconstructions that are influenced by peak, recent, and frequently occurring states, whereas daily reports reflect naturally occurring variations in daily life. The present research compared the averages of individual global evaluations and corresponding aggregated daily states from an ordinary two-week period and used a range of well-being measures (life satisfaction, meaning in life, and affect) and related constructs (searching for meaning in life and nostalgia). Across all measures, global reports were significantly higher than aggregated daily states. That is, life is considered more satisfying, more meaningful, and is characterized to a greater extent by more intense positive and negative emotions when reflecting on life in general than when reflecting on daily life in real time.

What can global evaluations and reports of daily experiences tell us about how someone’s life is going? Global evaluations require people to bring to mind relevant aspects of their lives and privilege memorable experiences, such as a wedding or an exotic vacation. Single assessments or recollections of life-in-general necessarily omit ordinary and mundane experiences, such as sitting in front of the computer. Assessments in daily life likely capture the quotidian ebbs and flows of someone’s life but may miss some of the peak memorable experiences. Understanding the distinction between global evaluations of one’s life and contextualized reports of states has been an important topic in social and personality psychology. Well-being can be assessed in similar manners.

These distinct methods of assessing well-being have various strengths and weaknesses. The primary goal of the present research was to compare the averages of specific global reports with their corresponding aggregated daily states of well-being. A secondary goal was to examine the effect of the order of completion of the daily and global reports on the discrepancy between the two. Doing so provides insight into the cognitive processes involved in each form of judgment and yields provocative implications for positive psychology, namely that these different methods of measuring well-being do not capture the same construct.

The study was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.