For years, researchers have pondered the factors that influence how people make judgments about their wellbeing.
However, until the late ‘80s, much of what we knew about wellbeing was based on a poor definition of the construct. This left much of the scientific community scratching its head and asking the same question:
What is wellbeing anyway?
This confusion was soon resolved with the introduction of Carol Ryff’s (1989a) seminal work, operationalizing and developing a six-factor measure of psychological wellbeing, which is now among the most cited measures in the world.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Wellbeing, teach you how to interpret the results, and point you toward a range of resources to get the most out of this simple yet powerful assessment tool.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals and give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
The Ryff Scales of Psychological Wellbeing
Before 1989, considerable research was concerned with the notion of wellbeing, coinciding with the rise in the positive psychology movement. This research primarily focused on what would now be considered the related concepts of happiness, life satisfaction, and positive affect (Ryff, 2014).
While research on these concepts revealed overlapping themes around wellbeing and optimal functioning, none fully encapsulated the concept of psychological wellbeing on its own.
Today, psychological wellbeing is its own separate construct, defined as comprising six core dimensions (adapted from Ryff & Keyes, 1995):
Positive attitude toward the self; acknowledgment and acceptance of multiple aspects of self, including good and bad qualities; positive feelings about one’s past
- Positive relations with others
Warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; concern for the welfare of others; capacity for strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understanding of the give-and-take of relationships
Self-determination and independence; the ability to resist social pressures to think and act in particular ways, regulate behavior from within, and evaluate oneself based on personal standards
- Environmental mastery
Sense of mastery and competence in one’s environment; the ability to control a complex array of external activities and leverage opportunities; the capacity to choose or create contexts that suit needs and values
- Purpose in life
The possession of goals and a sense of direction; the feeling that there is meaning to present and past life; holding beliefs that give life purpose as well as aims and objectives for living
- Personal growth
Feelings of continued development and the sense that one is growing and expanding; openness to new experiences; realization of one’s potential and perceived improvement in self and behavior over time; change that reflects greater self-knowledge and effectiveness
Each of the definitions above describes someone scoring high on the dimension of wellbeing. There are also six definitions corresponding to low scorers.
For instance, a low score on the personal growth dimension indicates feelings of personal stagnation, the sense that one is not improving or expanding over time, feelings of boredom, a lack of control, and a felt inability to develop new attitudes and behaviors.
For the full list of definitions, see the appendix of Ryff and Keyes (1995).
Interestingly, Ryff’s six dimensions of psychological wellbeing were derived from research conducted in the context of aging. In this, Ryff (1989b) pointed to limitations of existing research, including an absence of theoretical frameworks, an over-focus on ill-being, a failure to treat the construct of wellbeing as dynamic rather than static, and a failure to account for cultural and value-based differences regarding what constitutes wellbeing.
To address these problems, Ryff (1989b) integrated the perspectives of several existing theories from the fields of lifespan development (e.g., Erikson, 1959), personal growth (e.g., Rogers, 1961), and mental health (e.g., Jahoda, 1958) to reveal six dimensions that make up psychological wellbeing.
This conceptualization was then carried over into developing the Psychological Wellbeing Scales, which are applicable to a range of age groups and demographics.
A Look at the Questionnaires
Let’s now look at the items that make up the six scales and explore how the questionnaire was developed.
The most commonly used version of the Psychological Wellbeing Scales comprises 42 items and includes a combination of positively and negatively worded items. An abbreviated, 18-item version of the measure is also widely used.
What follows are some example items that feature in both the original and abbreviated questionnaires.
Note: A bracketed ‘R’ indicates items that are reverse-scored.
- “When I look at the story of my life, I am pleased with how things have turned out.”
- “In many ways I feel disappointed about my achievements in life.” (R)
Positive relations with others
- “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others.”
- “Maintaining close relationships has been difficult and frustrating for me.” (R)
- “I have confidence in my own opinions, even if they are different from the way most other people think.”
- “I tend to be influenced by people with strong opinions.” (R)
- “In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live.”
- “The demands of everyday life often get me down.” (R)
Purpose in life
- “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”
- “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.” (R)
- “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”
- “I gave up trying to make big improvements or changes in my life a long time ago.” (R)
Note that all items are measured on six-point scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree).
You can find an in-depth description of how the questionnaire was developed in Ryff’s original article (1989a). These procedures are briefly summarized as follows.
After developing the 12 positive and negative definitions, approximately 80 items were generated for each scale. Half of these were written to assess the positive (high-scoring) pole, and half were written to assess the negative (low-scoring) pole.
After removing redundant or ill-fitting items, a final pool of 32 items per scale was assessed against a sample of 321 adults spanning a range of ages, resulting in the removal of more items. Further items were removed based on factor loadings. Items that correlated more highly with a scale other than their own or that exhibited low correlations overall were removed, resulting in 20 items per scale.
Further refinements were made to reduce administration time with ongoing research, resulting in an 84-item scale (see Ryff, Lee, Essex, & Schmutte, 1994; Schmutte & Ryff, 1997).
The 42-item scale detailed above was derived from a longitudinal study conducted with a US national sample (see Morozink, Friedman, Coe, & Ryff, 2010). Likewise, the concise 18-item scale was designed for use in a national survey study (Ryff & Keyes, 1995). Both of these options are now publicly available for use in research or practice.
These scales sacrifice a degree of internal consistency to reduce administration time (see The Long-Form Psychological Wellbeing Scales below to learn about the more comprehensive 84- and 54-item questionnaires).
Are the Scales Valid and Reliable?
Ryff’s (1989a) original paper revealed that the six scales exhibit acceptable internal consistency (α) ranging from .93 to .86.
Further, test–retest reliability over six weeks returned coefficients ranging from .88 to .81, suggesting that responses to the questionnaire remain fairly consistent over time in the absence of intervention. Overall, these findings suggest the questionnaire is sufficiently reliable.
Regarding validity, convergent validity was assessed by comparing the scales against existing measures of positive and negative functioning, such as the Self-Esteem Scale, the Life Satisfaction Index, and Zung’s Depression Scale (Neugarten, Havighurst, & Tobin, 1961; Rosenberg, 1979; Zung, 1965).
All correlations with these prior measures were significant and in the expected direction, suggesting the scale exhibits convergent validity.
Regarding discriminant validity, the six scales exhibit significant and strong correlations with the pre-existing measures of positive and negative functioning assessed. The strongest of these was a correlation of .73 between self-acceptance and the Life Satisfaction Index, which is quite high (Ryff, 1989a).
However, factor analysis revealed a strong ‘general wellbeing’ factor that encompassed several other pre-existing measures other than self-acceptance and environmental mastery, explaining these and other high correlations. Combined with multivariate, mean-level, and factor analysis, this evidence suggests that the scales are sufficiently distinct from existing measures (Ryff, 1989a).
Since their creation, many studies have drawn on Ryff’s scales, helping to position the construct relative to other well-established dimensions of personality and as an outcome of different interventions, behaviors, and life stages.
Here are just a few examples:
- Aspects of psychological wellbeing have been linked to the different dimensions of the Big Five Personality Model. For instance, personal growth is positively linked with openness to experience, and positive relations with others is positively linked to agreeableness (Schmutte & Ryff, 1997).
- Results from US national surveys reveal that parenting risks reducing the psychological wellbeing of mothers significantly more than fathers (Marks, Bumpass, & Jun, 2004).
- One longitudinal study found that being a smoker predicted significantly lower scores on the purpose in life dimension of psychological wellbeing four years later (Lappan, Thorne, Long, & Hendricks, 2020).
How to Score and Interpret the Results
The first step in scoring responses on these scales is to reverse-score each of the negatively worded items, before totaling all the values.
The formula for reverse-scoring an item is:
(Number of scale points + 1) – (Respondent’s answer)
For example, if a person gave a value of 5 in response to one of the negatively worded items, this response would be changed to a value of 2 (6+1-5).
Once you have all your values, you can then sum the total for each scale and present this value against a possible total for each subscale.
For ease, you can download the questionnaires and scoring instructions for free at the following links:
Note: The link to the 18-item scale features different scale points and anchors to those detailed here, so be sure to amend your scoring and calculations accordingly.
Ryff and colleagues have not published global cut-offs indicating what classifies as a ‘low’ or ‘high’ score on these scales. Instead, researchers might wish to classify the lower and upper quartiles (25%) of responses as low and high, assuming a normal sample distribution.
You might also identify cut points for the lower-, middle-, and upper-scoring groups by equally dividing respondents into these groups based on their total scores.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Looking for more tools to work on your clients’ psychological wellbeing? You’ll find many more resources throughout our blog and below.
The long-form Psychological Wellbeing Scales
Above, we have detailed the 42- and 18-item Psychological Wellbeing Scales. While these scales have the advantage of being quick to administer, practitioners looking for an especially high-quality assessment of wellbeing may wish to use the longer versions of these scales to ensure greater internal consistency.
There are two options for this purpose: the long (84-item) questionnaire and the medium (54-item) questionnaire. You can access a full list of these items, scoring information, and information on these scales’ psychometric properties using The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being tool, available through the Positive Psychology Toolkit©.
This toolkit is filled with over 400 downloadable activities, interventions, and questionnaires to extend your offerings as a coach or therapist, so consider signing up for this fantastic resource to help grow your practice today.
More on psychological wellbeing
Ready to develop your clients’ psychological wellbeing? Here are four more resources to help your clients strengthen each of the different facets of psychological wellbeing:
- High-Quality Relationships Worksheet
This worksheet presents a series of six questions and reflections to help assess the quality of a particular relationship. These six areas center on factors like coping with external challenges, felt mutuality and safety, and constructive expression of emotions.
- Decision-Making Worksheet for Adults
This worksheet guides clients through a step-by-step process for making decisions. This exercise may be useful for clients learning to embrace their autonomy or who are working toward strengthening their independence.
- Adopt a Growth Mindset
This worksheet helps clients recognize the difference between thoughts and behaviors flowing from a fixed versus growth mindset. By encouraging clients to write down and revise thoughts and behaviors flowing from a fixed mindset, they can prime themselves to begin pursuing positive development.
- 17 Meaning & Valued Living Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others discover meaning, check out this collection of 17 validated meaning tools for practitioners. Use them to help others choose directions for their lives in alignment with what is truly important to them.
A Take-Home Message
Psychological wellbeing is a powerful indicator of human wellness. Its power lies in its ability to bring together many well-established indicators and theories of positive human functioning into a simple questionnaire. Best of all, Ryff’s scales are scientifically validated and freely available to use in your research or with your clients.
We hope you’ve found this guide on Ryff’s scales valuable. And if you’re thinking about using the scales yourself or have a burning question, let us know in the comments – we’d love to hear from you.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.
- Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. Psychological Issues, 1, 18–164.
- Jahoda, M. (1958). Current concepts of positive mental health. Basic Books.
- Lappan, S., Thorne, C. B., Long, D., & Hendricks, P. S. (2020). Longitudinal and reciprocal relationships between psychological well-being and smoking. Nicotine and Tobacco Research, 22(1), 18–23.
- Marks, N. F., Bumpass, L. L., & Jun, H. (2004). Family roles and well-being during the middle life course. In O. G. Brim, C. D. Ryff, & R. C. Kessler (Eds.), How healthy are we? A national study of well-being at midlife (pp. 514–549). University of Chicago Press.
- Morozink, J. A., Friedman, E. M., Coe, C. L., & Ryff, C. D. (2010). Socioeconomic and psychosocial predictors of interleukin-6 in the MIDUS national sample. Health Psychology, 29(6), 626–635.
- Neugarten, B. L., Havighurst, R., & Tobin, S. (1961). The measurement of life satisfaction. Journal of Gerontology, 16, 134–143.
- Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Houghton Mifflin.
- Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the self. Basic Books.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989a). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989b). Beyond Ponce de Leon and life satisfaction: New directions in quest of successful ageing. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 12(1), 35–55.
- Ryff, C. D. (2014). Psychological well-being revisited: Advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 83(1), 10–28.
- Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719–727.
- Ryff, C. D., Lee, Y. H., Essex, M. J., & Schmutte, P. S. (1994). My children and me: Midlife evaluations of grown children and of self. Psychology and Aging, 9(2), 195–205.
- Schmutte, P. S., & Ryff, C. D. (1997). Personality and well-being: Reexamining methods and meanings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(3), 549–559.
- Zung, W. K. (1965). A self-rating depression scale. Archives General Psychiatry, 12, 63–70.