Measure well-being in words
Social Climate

Measure well-being in words

To understand survey-based data about human well-being, the starting point is knowing how the survey questions (Qs) were asked, followed by knowing how the survey respondents (Rs) were expected to answer. For efficiency in analysis, most Qs are multiple-choice type, to which the Rs are given a limited yet meaningful choice of answers.

In particular, I am not enthused by the basic Q of the World Happiness Report: “Where are you on a scale from zero, which stands for the worst possible life you can imagine, to ten, which stands for the best possible life you can imagine?” This is the Q by which Finland has been rated the “happiest” country in the world for several consecutive years.

In the first place, the Q doesn’t even use the word “happy.” Zero is not described as “unhappiest,” nor is 10 described as “happiest.” “Happiness” is only in the imagination of the interviewer, and in the imagination of the R. The Q does not state the meanings of the other numbers from 1 to 9; it only describes the end-points or so-called “anchors.” Can people actually recognize 11 degrees of happiness? What does 5 stand for? Is there such an emotion as “mid-happy”?

Describing happiness in words. Consider this alternative, simpler, Q: “Thinking of your life as a whole these days, would you say you are Very Happy, Somewhat Happy, Not Very Happy, or Not At All Happy?” This Q is straightforward, with answers easily understood. Long used in European surveys, it has been adopted by Social Weather Stations (SWS). In Filipino, the answers are: Talagang Masaya, Medyo Masaya, Hindi Masyadong Masaya, and Talagang Hindi Masaya (see “The happiness measurement biz,” 12/17/22.)


SWS has applied this Q in its national surveys over 40 times since 1991. I think it matters more to monitor the Unhappy percentage, i.e., the Rs that gave the latter two answers, since these are the groups that need society’s collective attention. From 1991 to 2019, the unhappy proportion of Filipinos fluctuated very widely; it ranged from a low of 6 percent in June 2019 to a high of 24 percent in May 2005.

The full-time series are in “First Quarter 2019 Social Weather Survey: 44% of Pinoys are ‘Very Happy’ with life; 37% are ‘Very Satisfied’ with life” (, 6/3/19). SWS also has post-pandemic surveys of happiness, but I can’t scoop the findings here. The extent of unhappiness is highly correlated, of course, with poverty and hunger, which SWS surveys at the same time, and has been reporting promptly every quarter.

Describing poverty in words. “Ending poverty in all its forms” is the short heading for the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. But, first of all, what does the word “poverty” mean in words? What does it mean to the Filipino people at large, in contrast to what the official numbers-keepers say it means? Who should be trusted the most on what “poverty” means in the Philippines?

Followers of SWS research are familiar with its long series of surveys of Self-Rated Poverty, where the first Q asks where the R (the household head) would place the family, on a card with Mahirap/Poor written on one side, with Hindi Mahirap/Not Poor written on the other side, and with a thin line between the two sides. This divides the Rs into three distinct groups: Poor, Not Poor, and Borderline. Even though the survey interviewer is trained not to mention the line as an acceptable answer, so many Rs point to it and thus reveal the Borderline group as so meaningful for poverty analysis.


Then a second question, asked of the Rs who consider themselves Poor, is, how much does the family need for home expenses per month in order not to feel poor? A third question asked of them is, how much does the family presently lack in home expenses in order not to feel poor? Thus, it is the Poor themselves who state their poverty threshold and their poverty gap in monetary terms; and these are updated every quarter.

In the National Capital Region, as of March 2024, the median self-rated poverty threshold is P25,000 per month, while the median self-rated poverty gap is P10,000 per month (“When hunger and poverty go opposite,” 5/4/24). The threshold and the gap are both spending levels; they are much more realistic than the income levels used in official definitions of poverty. The SWS poverty Qs have never changed, unlike the official poverty definition which has changed several times, most recently in 2011 (“The lowering of the official poverty line,” 2/12/11).


All aspects of human well-being are describable in words, prior to being measurable by numbers. There have been surveys about feeling sad (malungkot) and feeling rich (mayaman). Even though these are opposites of being happy and being poor, there are interesting cases when they co-exist.

As long as the subject matter is human existence, and the data are expressions of the people themselves, words, more than numbers, are important for studying them.


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TAGS: opinion, Words

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