Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 77–101 | Cite as

‘Very Happy’ is Not Always Equally Happy on the Meaning of Verbal Response Options in Survey Questions

Research Paper


Survey research is based on questioning and respondents typically answer to questions by picking one of several response options. These response options are labelled verbally with terms such as ‘very happy’ or ‘fairly happy’. Response scales differ in the number and wording of response options and this could affect the degree of happiness denoted by such words. If so, scores on differently worded questions on the same topic cannot be compared and this reduces the opportunities for research synthesis greatly. Several methods for transformation have been developed for dealing with that problem, among which the recently proposed ‘scale interval method’ in which judges rate the interval denoted by verbal response options on a continuous 0–10 scale. This method allows a view on the size of the problem. Application of the scale interval method to commonly used survey questions on happiness in Dutch language reveals considerable differences. The implications of this for research synthesis are discussed.


Happiness Satisfaction with life Subjective wellbeing Response scales Scale interval method Research synthesis 


  1. Bălţătescu, S. (2002). Problems of transforming scales of life satisfaction Euromodule workshop Berlin
  2. Cummins, R. A. (1997). The comprehensive quality of life scale: Intellectual/cognitive disability (ComQol-I5) (5th ed.). Melbourne: School of Psychology Deakin University.Google Scholar
  3. Cummins, R. A. (2003). Normative life satisfaction: Measurement issues and homeostatic model. Social Indicators Research, 64, 225–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cummins, R. A. (2009). Australian unity wellbeing index, survey 21 Report 21.0, May 2009, Australian Centre on Quality of Life, Deakin University, Figure 2.12.Google Scholar
  5. Cummins, R.A. & Gullone, E. (2000). Why we should not use 5-point Likert scales: The case for subjective quality of life measurement. Proceedings, Second International Conference on Quality of Life in Cities (pp.74–93). Singapore: National University of Singapore.Google Scholar
  6. DeJonge, T., Hupkens, C. & Bruggink, J.W. (2009). Living a happy, healthy and satisfying life. Background paper for the 3rd World Conference of the OECD in Busan, South Korea.
  7. DeJonge, T., Veenhoven, R. & Arends, L.R. (2013). Homogenizing responses to different survey questions on the same topic. Proposal of a scale homogenization method using a reference distribution. Social Indicators Research, Published online: 24 May 2013, Springer, doi: 10.1007/s11205-013-0355-6.
  8. Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Jones, L. V., & Thurstone, L. L. (1955). The psychophysics of semantics. An experimental investigation. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 39(1), 31–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kalmijn, W.M. (2010). Quantification of Happiness Inequality PhD-thesis, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Ipskamp Drukkers, Enschede.
  11. Kalmijn, W. M., Arends, L. R., & Veenhoven, R. (2011). Happiness scale interval study, methodological considerations. Social Indicators Research, 102(3), 497–515. doi: 10.1007/s11205-010-9688-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lim, H.E. (2008) The use of different happiness rating scales: Bias and comparison problem? Social Indicators Research 87 (pp. 259–267), Springer, doi:  10.1007/s11205-007-9171-x.Google Scholar
  13. Mazaheri, M., & Theuns, P. (2009). Effects of varying response formats on self-ratings of life-satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 90, 381–395. doi: 10.1007/s11205-008-9263-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Sangster, R. L., Willits, F. K., Saltiel, J., Lorenz, F.O., & Rockwood, T.H. (2001). The effect of numerical labels on response scales. In Article presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Statistical Association, Atlanta, GA,
  15. Saris, W.E. & Gallhofer, I.N. (2007). Design, evaluation, and analysis of questionnaires for survey research. Publisher Hoboken, New York, USA, Wiley-Interscience, Wiley series in survey methodology, ISBN 978-0-470-11495-7, e-ISBN 978-0-470-16519-5.Google Scholar
  16. Schwarz, N., Knauper, B., Hippler, H.J., Noelle-Neumann, E. & Clark, W. (1991). Rating scales: Numeric values may change the meaning of scale labels. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 55, 570–582. Scholar
  17. Veenhoven, R. (1993). Happiness in nations, subjective appreciation of life in 56 nations, 1946–1992. Studies in Social-Cultural Transformation, No. 2, RISBO, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands.Google Scholar
  18. Veenhoven, R. (2008). The International Scale Interval Study. In V. Møller & D. Huschka (Eds), Quality of Life in the new millennium: ‘Advances in quality-of-life studies, theory and research’, Part 2: Refining concepts and measurement to assess cross-cultural quality-of-life (pp. 45–58). Social Indicator Research Series, vol. 35, Dordrecht: Springer.
  19. Veenhoven, R (2013) World database of happiness: Archive of research findings on subjective enjoyment of life Erasmus University Rotterdam.
  20. Veenhoven, R. (2013a) Measures of happiness World Database of Happiness.
  21. Veenhoven, R. (2013b) Happiness in Nations World Database of Happiness.
  22. Veenhoven, R. & Hermus, P. (2006). Scale interval recorder. Tool for assessing relative weights of verbal response options on survey questions, Web survey program. Erasmus University Rotterdam, Department of Social Sciences and Risbo Contract Research, The Netherlands.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tineke DeJonge
    • 1
  • Ruut Veenhoven
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lidia Arends
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Erasmus Happiness Economics Research OrganizationErasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.North-West UniversityPotchefstroomSouth Africa
  3. 3.Institute of PsychologyErasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Institute of Pedagogical SciencesErasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  5. 5.BiostatisticsErasmus MCRotterdamThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations