Epistemic status: exploring. Previous related discussion.

I feel confused about what people are talking about when they talk about life satisfaction scales.

You know, this kind of question: "how satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of 0 to 10?"

(Actual life satisfaction scales are somewhat more nuanced (a), but the confusion I'm pointing to persists.)

The most satisfying life imaginable

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean "the most satisfying life I can imagine?"

But given how poor our introspective access is, why should we trust our judgments about what possible life-shape would be most satisfying?

The difficulty here sharpens when reflecting on how satisfaction preferences morph over time: my 5-year-old self had a very different preference-set than my 20-something self, and I'd expect my middle-aged self to have quite a different preference-set than my 20-something self.

Perhaps we mean something like "the most satisfying life I can imagine for myself at this point in my life, given what I know about myself & my preferences." But this is problematic – if someone was extremely satisfied (such that they'd rate themselves a 10), but would become even more satisfied if Improvement X were introduced, shouldn't the scale be able to accommodate their perceived increase in satisfaction? (i.e. They weren't really at a 10 before receiving Improvement X after all, if their satisfaction improved upon receiving it. But under this definition, the extremely satisfied person was appropriately rating themselves a 10 beforehand.)

The most satisfying life, objectively

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean "the most satisfying life, objectively?"

But given the enormous state-space of reality (which remains truly enormous even after being reduced by qualifiers like "reality ordered such that humans exist"), why should we be confident that the states we're familiar with overlap with the states that are objectively most satisfying?

The difficulty here sharpens when we factor in reports of extremely satisfying states unlocked by esoteric practices. (Sex! Drugs! Enlightenment!) Reports like this crop up frequently enough that it seems hasty to dismiss them out of hand without first investigating (e.g. reports of enlightenment states from this neighborhood of the social graph: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The difficulty sharpens even further given the lack of consensus around what life satisfaction is – the Evangelical model of a satisfying life is very different than the Buddhist.

The most satisfying life, in practice

I think that in practice, a 10 on a 0-to-10 scale means something like "the most satisfying my life can be, benchmarked on all the ways my life has been so far plus the nearest neighbors of those."

This seems okay, but plausibly forecloses on a large space of awesomely satisfying lives that look very different than one's current benchmark.

So I don't really know what we're talking about when we talk about life satisfaction scales.

Cross-posted to LessWrong & my blog.

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I feel like the issues with "How satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of 0 to 10?" run even a bit deeper than indicated. The series "The Americans" is about a married couple of Soviet spies living a painful and difficult life in America during the Cold War. The wife still believes in the mission, her husband not so much (but continues doing the job for the sake of his wife). Let's say the wife rates her life satisfaction 9/10 because she convinced herself that she's bravely doing highly important work. The husband rates his life satisfaction 1/10. They'd both score about the same in terms of more objective metrics like socioeconomic status, how much time they spend on hobbies or with their kids, how much stress they have, etc. But they interpret things differently because the wife ascribes meaning to her hardships and is proud of her accomplishments, while the husband feels trapped and like he wasted his life and endangered his children for no good reason.

My impression is that the term "life satisfaction" sees the heaviest use in psychology where full philosophical analysis of the necessary and sufficient properties of "life satisfaction" isn't especially desired or useful. As long as it the term denotes a concept with some internal consistency and we all use the term in roughly compatible ways, we can usefully use it in measurements.

If you're looking for a concept that's a load-bearing part of your ethics, primarily psychological constructs like "life satisfaction" aren't a great fit. I think the discussions you'd want to look at for these more philosophical purposes are discussions around eudaimonia, hedonia, etc.

Huh, I feel like the same issue would arise for (e.g.) eudaimonia, if we tried to spec out what it is we mean exactly by "eudaimonia."

(My model here is that the psychological constructs are an attempt at specifying + making quantifiable concepts that philosophy had identified but left vague.)

Ah, yeah. I didn't mean to suggest that the philosophers have it all worked out. What I meant is that I think the philosophers seem to share your goals. In other words, I (as a non-professional in either psychology or philosophy) think if someone came up to a psychologist and said, "I've come up with these edge cases for 'life satisfaction'", they'd more or less reply, "That's regrettable. Moving on...". On the other hand, if someone came up to a philosopher and said, "I've come up with edge cases for 'eudaimonia'", they might reply, "Yes, edges cases like these are among my central concerns. Here's the existing work on the matter and here are my current attempts at a resolution."

Got it. I'm somewhat more bearish than you re: academic philosophers sharing my goals here. (Though some definitely do! Generalizations are hard.)

I don't have a neat, definitive answer for you, but I've been reading the Oxford Handbook of Happiness lately and these are the bits that come to mind:

  • The Satisfaction with Life Scale is the most common instrument used to measure life satisfaction and may give you some sense of how they operationalize the term. Rated on a 7 point Likert scale:
    • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
    • The conditions of my life are excellent.
    • I am satisfied with my life.
    • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
    • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
  • Another common instrument is the Cantrill ladder which asks people to place themselves on a ladder where the bottom rung is the worst life possible and the top rung is the best life possible. This is probably closest to your "the most satisfying life imaginable".
  • One explicit definition listed in the book is:
Campbell et al. (1976) argue that satisfaction with any aspect of life reflects the gap between one’s current perceived reality and the level to which one aspires.

This sounds closest to your "the most satisfying life, in practice".

  • Another set of authors contend that general life satisfaction is actually (contrary to first impressions) more affective than cognitive:
This generalized positive view may be measured through asking “How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?,” and this question has been used in population surveys for over 35 years (Andrews & Withey, 1976). Not surprisingly, given the extraordinary generality of this question, the response that people give does not represent a cognitive evaluation of their life. Rather it reflects a deep and stable positive mood state that we initially called “core affect” (Davern et al., 2007), but which we now refer to as HPMood (Cummins, 2010).

I found a passage from the book that's much more on the nose:

But here we will focus on a deeper threat to the importance of LS, one that stems from the very nature and point of LS attitudes. How satisfied you are with your life does not simply depend on how well you see your life going relative to your priorities. It also depends centrally on how high you set the bar for a “satisfactory” life: how good is “good enough?” Rosa might be satisfied with her life only when getting almost everything she wants, while Juliet is satisfied even when getting very little of what she wants—indeed, even when most of her goals are being frustrated. It can seem odd to think that satisfied Juliet, for whom every day is a new kick in the teeth, is better off than dissatisfied Rosa, who nonetheless succeeds in almost all the things she cares about but is more demanding.

More to the point, it is not clear why LS should be so important insofar as it is a matter of how high or low individuals set the bar. Suppose Rosa has a lengthy, and not inconsequential, “life list,” and will not be satisfied until she has checked off every item on the list. It is not implausible that we should care about how well Rosa achieves her priorities—e.g., whether her goals are mostly met or roundly frustrated. But should anyone regard it as a weighty matter whether she actually gets every last thing on her list, and thus is satisfied with her life? It is doubtful, indeed, that Rosa should put much stock in it.

The point here is not simply that LS can reflect unreasonable demands, but that it depends on people’s standards for a good enough life, and these bear a problematic relationship to people’s well-being, depending on various factors that have no obvious relationship to how well people’s lives are going for them. It may happen that Rosa comes to see her standards as unreasonably high and revises them downwards—not because her priorities change, but because she now finds it unseemly to be so needy. In this case, what drives her LS is, in part, the norms she takes to apply to her attitudes—how it is fitting to respond to her life. Such norms likely influence most people’s attitudes toward their lives—a wish to exhibit virtues like fortitude, toughness, strength, or exactingness, non-complacency, and so forth. How satisfied we are with our lives partly depends, in short, on the norms we accept regarding how it is appropriate to respond to our lives. Note that most of us accept a variety of such norms, pulling in different directions, and it can be somewhat arbitrary which norms we emphasize in thinking about our lives. You may value both fortitude and not being complacent, and it may not be obvious which to give more weight in assessing your life. You may, at diff erent times, vary between them.

Similarly, LS depends on the perspective one adopts: relative to what are you more or less satisfied? Looking at Tiny Tim, you may naturally take up a perspective on your life that makes your good fortune more salient, and so you reasonably find yourself pretty satisfied with things. Then you think about George Clooney, and your life doesn’t look so good by comparison: your satisfaction drops. Worse, it is doubtful that any perspective is uniquely the right one to take: again, it is somewhat arbitrary. Unless you are like Rosa and have bizarrely—not to say childishly—determinate criteria for how good your life has to be to qualify as a satisfactory one, it will be open to you to assess your life from any of a number of vantage points, each quite reasonable and each yielding a different verdict.

Indeed, the very idea of subjecting one’s life to an all-in assessment of satisfactoriness is a bit odd. When you order a steak prepared medium and it turns up rare, its deficiencies are immediately apparent and your dissatisfaction can be given plain meaning: you send it back. Or, you don’t return to that establishment. But when your life has annoying features, what would it mean to deem it unsatisfactory? You can’t very well send it back. (Well . . .) Nor can you resolve to choose a different one next time around. It just isn’t clear what’s at stake in judging one’s life satisfactory or otherwise; lives are vastly harder to judge than steaks; and anyway, what counts as a reasonable expectation for a life is less than obvious since the price of admission is free—you’re just born, and there you are. So it is hard to know where to set the bar, and unsurprising that people can be so easily gotten by trivial influences to move it (Schwarz & Strack, 1999). You might be satisfi ed with your life simply because it beats being dead. The ideal of life satisfaction arguably imports a consumer’s concept, one most at home in retail environments, into an existential setting where metrics of customer satisfaction may be less than fitting. (It is an interesting question how far people spoke of life satisfaction before the postwar era got us in the habit of calling ourselves “consumers.”)

In short, LS depends heavily on where you set the bar for a “good enough” life, and this in turn depends on factors like perspectives and norms that are substantially arbitrary and have little bearing on your well-being. Th e worry is not that LS fails to track some objective standard of well-being, but that we should expect that it will fail to track any sane metric of well-being, including the individual’s own. To take one example: Studies suggest that dialysis patients report normal levels of LS, which might lead us to think they don’t really mind it very much. Yet when asked to state a preference, patients said they would be willing to give up half their remaining life-years to regain normal kidney function (Riis et al., 2005 ; Torrance, 1976 ; Ubel & Loewenstein, 2008). This is about as strong as a preference gets. A plausible supposition is that people don’t adjust their priorities when they get kidney disease so much as they adjust their standards for what they’ll consider a satisfactory life. LS thus obscures precisely the sort of information one might expect it to provide—not because of errors or noise, but because it is not the sort of thing that is supposed in any straightforward way to yield that information. LS is not that sort of beast.

The claim is not that LS measures never provide useful information about well-being. In fact they frequently do, because the perceived welfare information is in there somewhere, and differences in norms and perspectives may often cancel out over large populations. They may not cancel out, however, where norms and perspectives systematically differ, and this is a serious problem in many contexts, especially cross-cultural comparisons using LS (Haybron, 2007, 2008). But what the points raised in this section chiefly indicate about LS measures is that we cannot support conclusions about absolute levels of well-being with facts about LS. That people are satisfied with their lives does not so much as hint that their lives are going well relative to their priorities. If we wish reliably to assess how people see their lives going for them, we need a better yardstick than life satisfaction.

Thanks! This is from the Oxford Handbook of Happiness?

Yup. It's in Chapter 23, The Nature and Significance of Happiness.