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According to a recent study, elderly Thai people have a generally positive sense of their own well-being, the result, in part, of the social interconnections that they emphasize in their culture.

A study by four researchers published last year in the journal The Gerontologist points out that psychological well-being in many cultures is tied to both independence and interdependence in varying degrees. For Americans, independence and autonomy are paramount attributes of well-being, while for Asians interconnectedness is the higher value. People in many Eastern cultures are expected to be responsible for one another; early socialization often emphasizes collaboration, mutual concern, and group harmony.

However, standard psychological measures of well-being, based on Western understandings of the idealized self—as independent and autonomous—may lack relevance for Asian cultural contexts. In response to that lack, the authors decided to establish a measure for evaluating the sense of well-being among Thai elders. Their work is an attempt to contribute a cross-cultural perspective to the literature on well-being. The point of their work was to figure out the best ways to interview elderly Thai people and to produce an effective quantitative measure that will determine a sense of well-being.

In the first phase of their study they interviewed 67 people ages 60 and older in Bangkok and surrounding rural areas to identify their views of the dimensions of well-being. They asked questions, taken from the literature, about their subjects’ senses of adjustment, maturity, personal fulfillment, and notions of the ideal person. After they coded and analyzed the responses, they found that Thai elders viewed well-being in five different dimensions: harmony (happy, peaceful relations with others); interdependence (providing and receiving assistance); acceptance (accepting what life brings); respect; and enjoyment.

With those five dimensions established, the investigators constructed a quantitative measure of well-being that would be appropriate to the Thai context. They then tested it on 477 elders.

Next they conducted cognitive interviews with a smaller sample of elders to find out if there were problems with their approaches. They soon learned that their method of framing the questions confused the Thai elders. When their procedure, following the Western style, asked respondents to rate each topic—such as “in your family people get along well together”—with responses that ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”, the respondents had trouble. The requirement that the respondents must agree or not agree with the statements prompted the elderly people to reflect about heir own life choices. Instead of answering the questions, they responded in ways that showed how they felt they should have lived their lives.

The researchers re-framed the questions, asking the respondents to reply to each topic with a response ranging from “very true” to “not at all true.” When each question was modified with that revised wording, the elders had no trouble reflecting on their current situations and answering effectively. The researchers also found from the cognitive interviews that some of the individual statements had to be modified.

After making the changes, the researchers tried again with a another sample of 460 elders in Bangkok and rural areas of Central Thailand. From the results of that refined measure, the authors established a “well-being index” for Thailand that correlates both intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptions of well-being.

One thing they learned during their investigation is that in Thailand elderly people usually live with others, so interviewing them often proved to be difficult. Other members of the family, neighbors, and friends were frequently present for the interviews. Trying to ascertain how the elderly people evaluate their relationships with others was especially difficult for the interviewers when those other people were listening in. The interviewers resorted to creative strategies in order to achieve privacy, such as pointing to printed questions and asking the respondents to point to the choices they wanted, or asking to go to quieter places to conduct the interview, or moving closer and talking more quietly.

The authors emphasize that feelings of well-being among Thai elders include both interpersonal and intrapersonal facets. They conclude that the Thai Buddhist beliefs about karma may be linked to their feelings about well-being. For the Thai, doing good results in merit for future incarnations, and the process of gaining merit involves both a focus on the self and a focus on others. A gift may earn the individual merit but giving it is a process involving others. This duality can be seen among Thai elders, who frequently view well-being in both interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions.

Ingersoll-Dayton, Berit, Chanpen Saengtienchai, Jiraporn Kespichayawattana, and Yupin Aungsuroch. 2004. “Measuring Psychological Well-Being: Insights from Thai Elders.” The Gerontologist 44(5): 596-604.