A New Approach to Measuring Subjective Wellbeing: Introducing an Anchored Best-Worst Scaling (ABWS) Method

The concept of subjective wellbeing describes an individual’s personal evaluation of their own life. It is often referred to as a measure of ‘happiness’, traditionally determined through scale-based responses to questions regarding personal life satisfaction, emotional affect (positive and negative responses to life circumstances) and eudaimonia (roughly translated to mean ‘wellbeing’ driven by a sense of purpose and personal growth).

It is well documented in the literature that scales suffer significantly from response bias. Paulhus (1991) defines this as the systematic tendency to respond to a range of questionnaire items on some basis other than the specific item content. Response bias may manifest as a result of:

  1. Reluctance to use the extremes of the scale or the tendency to only use the extremes of the scale
  2. Desire to give responses that are socially acceptable
  3. Different methods of benchmarking
  4. Inability to remain consistently calibrated throughout all the items

These tendencies and difficulties create bias and errors that obscure the measurement of an individual’s subjective wellbeing. They result in limited discrimination between items and inhibit the ability to compare results between individuals. 

In order to combat these measurement issues, CaPPRe is conducting research into offering an alternative method of measuring subjective wellbeing using the trade-off method of best-worst scaling (BWS). BWS was developed by Louviere in 1987 as a survey technique used to find a discriminating prioritisation between a master list of items.  It involves a cognitive process by which the items are systematically organised into subsets of three or more, and respondents are asked to repeatedly choose which two exhibit the largest perceptual difference (“best” and “worst”) on some underlying continuum of interest (Finn and Louviere, 1992). Since humans are better at discriminating items at the extremes rather than in between, BWS tasks are relatively easy for respondents to understand and complete.

To measure subjective wellbeing, CaPPRe applies this BWS approach across two continuums, importance and satisfaction, based on a master list of 11 items that were drawn from the Personal Wellbeing Index and OECD wellbeing guidelines:

  1. Standard of living;
  2. Health;
  3. Achievements in life;
  4. Personal relationships;
  5. Safety;
  6. Feeling part of the community;
  7. Future security;
  8. Spirituality/beliefs or religion;
  9. Amount of time you have to do the things that you like doing;
  10. Quality of your local environment; and
  11. Daily job and/or responsibilities.

Next, CaPPRe introduces an anchoring process that rescales the BWS scores into absolute values. We refer to this as anchored best-worst scaling (ABWS) and can use this to convert the scores into an index of subjective wellbeing – a robust measure of personal life satisfaction that accounts for the relative importance of each contributing domain. The development of the index would allow comparison across numerous socio-demographic variables including age groups, geographical regions, household income levels and gender.



The methodological improvements and inclusion of importance weights are novel to research in this space and will add significant improvements to the interpretation and actionability of subjective well-being data. Insights from this research can be used by stakeholders as a diagnostic tool to focus services, policy or other initiatives in areas where it will have the most impact on improving wellbeing (e.g., areas where satisfaction is low and importance is high).