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Time Use and Subjective Well-Being in France and the U.S.

Social scientists and policymakers have long been interested in comparing the subjective well-being (SWB) of populations over time and across countries, although SWB is hard to define and measure. Nevertheless, attempts have been made to rank countries based on SWB (e.g., Veenhoven 1996; OECD 2005). Cross-country data have also been used to study the effect on SWB of public policies, economic conditions and institutions (e.g., Alesina et al 2002; Frey and Stutzer 2002; Blanchower 2007). The most common measure of SWB in these studies is based on a question that asks respondents about their overall level of life satisfaction or happiness. Other measures of SWB include ecological momentary assessment (EMA; Stone et al 1999) and the day reconstruction method (DRM; Kahneman et al 2004). These measures collect individuals time use and affective experience over time, either using real-time data collection or diary recall methods. An advantage of such time-based SWB data is that they connect individuals reported SWB to actual events that occurred in their lives, but these measures have not been used previously in cross-country studies. A parallel literature compares individuals allocation of time. In these studies, researchers either use external judgment to classify certain activities as enjoyable leisure time (e.g., Aguiar et al 2007) or assign enjoyment scores to activities based on subjects average ratings of the activities in general (e.g., Juster 1985; Robinson and Godbey 1999). One limitation of the former is that researchers judgments are used to determine which activities constitute leisure and which constitute home production. Should gardening, for example, be classified as enjoyable leisure or irritating home production? A limitation of the latter approach is that recalled enjoyment ratings of activities in general may diverge from the feelings actually experienced during the activities. In this article, we first apply NTA to two cities in France and the United States and ask whether the standard measure of life satisfaction and NTA yield the same conclusion concerning relative subjective well-being. Specically, we designed a survey to compare overall life satisfaction, time use, and recalled affective experience during episodes of the day for random samples of women in Rennes (Brittany) in France and in Columbus (Ohio) in the United States. We also present results using time allocation derived from national samples in the United States and France to extend our analysis beyond two cities. Based on the standard life satisfaction question, we find that Americans report higher levels of life satisfaction than the French in our samples. Yet based on the DRM, we find that the French spend their days in a more positive mood, on average, and spend more of their time in activities that are more enjoyable. Consistent with the pattern of time use in our two cities, the national time-use data also indicate that the French spend relatively more of their time engaged in activities that tend to yield more pleasure than do the Americans, using either the average American woman's rating of activities or average French woman's rating of activities. While our data are not representative of the entire countries that we study, our results illustrate the feasibility of NTA as a methodology for comparing time use and SWB across countries. The observed discrepancies between global reports of well-being and NTA suggest that considerable caution is required in comparing standard life satisfaction data across populations with different cultures. In particular, the Americans seem to be more emphatic when reporting their well-being. This tendency leads the American to be more likely to report that they are very satisfied with their lives than the French, as well as more likely to report that they are not at all satisfied with their lives. The U-index helps to circumvent this inclination. Lastly, we illustrate how NTA could be used to make comparisons of well-being within a country over time. Because micro data on well-being and time use are not available from DRM-like instruments over time, we are forced to use historical data on time use across various activities in the U.S. from available surveys. We combine the historical time-use data with ratings on affective experience during various activities collected from a telephone survey version of the DRM that was designed to collect nationally representative data on affective experience and time use in the US. The results suggest that American women have gradually shifted their time into activities that are less pleasant emotionally over the last 40 years, while for men there has been remarkable stability in the average emotional experience associated with the pattern of time allocation across activities. We view NTA as a compliment to the National Income Accounts, not a substitute. Like the National Income Accounts, NTA is also incomplete, providing a partial measure of society's well-being. National time accounting misses peoples general sense of satisfaction or fulfillment with their lives as a whole, apart from moment to moment feelings. Still, we argue that evaluated time use provides a valuable indicator of societys well-being, and the fact that our measure of well-being is connected to time allocation has analytical and policy advantages that are not available from other measures of subjective well-being, such as overall life satisfaction.