The best and worst times of life for South Africans: evidence of universal reference standards in evaluations of personal well-being using Bernheim's ACSA
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Bernheim's self-anchoring Anamnestic Comparative Self-Assessment (ACSA) measure of personal well-being was applied for the first time in South Africa in 2012 in the nationally representative South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). The SASAS study of ACSA followed on earlier pilot and community studies conducted in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Survey respondents described in their own words the best and worst periods in their lives, which serve as the anchors of the ACSA scale. Findings from the study suggest that reference standards matter for the evaluation of personal well-being. Social and material domains represented the dominant choice of reference standards for ACSA ratings. Higher ACSA scores tended to be associated with social reference standards related to the domain of family life, and the domains of 'achievements' and 'personal events', which were mainly studies-related achievements and personal events marking milestones in the transition to adulthood. Lower ACSA scores were most often related to the material reference standards: the domains of 'money', 'work' (employment), and housing. Findings from the SASAS study support the notion that the choice of domains as ACSA reference standards may be universal and therefore less culturally sensitive than those of more conventional measures. 'Family' events, common to all cultures, represented a dominant South African ACSA anchor choice as has been found in other studies of ACSA. Choice of domains as reference standards tended to be universally defined according to age and passage through the life course rather than particularistically, in line with the large socioeconomic divides in South African society. While ACSA scores did reflect the fact that the apartheid-era hierarchy of material disadvantage still persists in South African society, choice of domains as ACSA reference standards were similar among members of all population groups. ACSA was significantly associated with more conventional measures of personal well-being, including life satisfaction, happiness, and the Personal Wellbeing Index. The closest association was with the self-anchoring Cantril ladder that uses a hypothetical, imaginary reference standard instead of ACSA's real-life, biographical one.