The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being

Spring 2005

By Tricia A. Seifert, University of Iowa



Well-being is a dynamic concept that includes subjective, social, and psychological dimensions as well as health-related behaviors. The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being is a theoretically grounded instrument that specifically focuses on measuring multiple facets of psychological well-being. These facets include the following:


  • self-acceptance
  • the establishment of quality ties to other
  • a sense of autonomy in thought and action
  • the ability to manage complex environments to suit personal needs and values
  • the pursuit of meaningful goals and a sense of purpose in life
  • continued growth and development as a person


This straightforward inventory is easy to access and administer.



Well-being is a multifaceted concept. It is often thought of as one of the hallmarks of the liberal arts experience, resulting from educational encounters that both guide students in the search for meaning and direction in life and help them realize their true potential. The Ryff is a straightforward and relatively short survey that assesses the psychological component of well-being. This review discusses the administration and cost of the Ryff; the theoretical background, development, and psychometric properties of the instrument; and possible uses of this instrument in higher education assessment settings.


About the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being

The Ryff inventory consists of either 84 questions (long form) or 54 questions (medium form). There is also a short form, but it is statistically unreliable and therefore should not be used for assessment. Both the long and medium forms consist of a series of statements reflecting the six areas of psychological well-being: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Respondents rate statements on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 indicating strong disagreement and 6 indicating strong agreement.

The following are example statements from each of the areas of well-being measured by the Ryff inventory:


I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are contrary to the general consensus.

Environmental Mastery

In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live.

Personal Growth

I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.

Positive Relations with Others

People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others.

Purpose in Life

Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.

I like most aspects of my personality.

Responses are totaled for each of the six categories (about half of the responses are reverse scored, which is indicated on the master copy of the test). For each category, a high score indicates that the respondent has a mastery of that area in his or her life. Conversely, a low score shows that the respondent struggles to feel comfortable with that particular concept. See Table 1 below.


Table 1

Definitions of Theory-Guided Dimensions of Well-Beingª



High scorer: Possesses a positive attitude toward the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self, including good and bad qualities; feels positive about past life.

Low scorer: Feels dissatisfied with self; is disappointed with what has occurred with past life; is troubled about certain personal qualities; wishes to be different than what he or she is.

Positive relations with others

High scorer: Has warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understands give and take of human relationships.

Low scorer: Has few close, trusting relationships with others; finds it difficult to be warm, open, and concerned about others; is isolated and frustrated in interpersonal relationships; not willing to make compromises to sustain important ties with others.


High scorer: Is self-determining and independent; able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways; regulates behavior from within; evaluates self by personal standards.

Low scorer: Is concerned about the expectations and evaluations of others; relies on judgments of others to make important decisions; conforms to social pressures to think and act in certain ways.

Environmental mastery

High scorer: Has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment; controls complex array of external activities; makes effective use of surrounding opportunities; able to choose or create contexts suitable to personal needs and values.

Low scorer: Has difficulty managing everyday affairs; feels unable to change or improve surrounding context; is unaware of surrounding opportunities; lacks sense of control over external world.

Purpose in life

High scorer: Has goals in life and a sense of directedness; feels there is meaning to present and past life; holds beliefs that give life purpose; has aims and objectives for living.

Low scorer: Lacks a sense of meaning in life; has few goals or aims, lacks sense of direction; does not see purpose of past life; has no outlook or beliefs that give life meaning.

Personal growth

High scorer: Has a feeling of continued development; sees self as growing and expanding; is open to new experiences; has sense of realizing his or her potential; sees improvement in self and behavior over time; is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.

Low scorer: Has a sense of personal stagnation; lacks sense of improvement or expansion over time; feels bored and uninterested with life; feels unable to develop new attitudes or behaviors.


ª This table was taken from Ryff and Keyes (1995, p.1072)


Who should use this? How should it be used?

In higher education, the Ryff could be used in a multitude of settings, such as a part of an intake and final assessment at a student counseling center. Counselors would be able to see what impact the counseling sessions had on students’ psychological well-being. Spiritual counselors could also use the inventory in their dialogues with students about developing meaningful purpose in life in the journey toward finding true “vocation.” Perhaps the most obvious place where this instrument may be used in the higher education setting is in conjunction with a health or wellness curriculum in residence halls, Greek-letter organizations, and first-year experience programs. Educators could administer the Ryff before and after initiating programs to assess their impact on students’ psychological well-being. In this way, the Ryff scales could be used as a tool to inform what types of programs could be provided to enhance psychological well-being.

More generally, the Ryff could be administered to a student population at the beginning and end of the college career to measure the collective development of well-being over time. Researchers might also consider combining data on student demographics (e.g., socioeconomic status, ethnic background, GPA, major, etc.) with results of the Ryff survey to examine relationships between student characteristics and well-being.

Because of the reflective process involved in completing the Ryff, those who administer the survey must demonstrate care and concern for the participants. It is also important that those administering the Ryff acknowledge to respondents, prior to administration, that completion of the instrument requires self-reflection, which may be somewhat uncomfortable. If the results of the Ryff are shared with the participants, I suggest taking time to either discuss the results in-depth and/or provide on- and off-campus resources for students needing to process the experience and what they learned from it.



One limitation of the Ryff scales is that it relies on self-reported assessments of psychological well-being. As with all self-report instruments, students may respond in ways that are socially desirable rather than reveal their actual response to each statement. [5,12] Ryff suggests that in order to obtain a more complete understanding of a respondent’s psychological well-being, observational or survey data from others who are close to or important to the respondent is needed. A final limitation is that the validity of the instrument has been tested not on traditional-aged college students, but on adults age 25 or older. While this is a limitation, given the ever-growing proportion of non-traditional age college students, I find this to be of minor concern.  


Administration and Cost

There is no charge to use the Ryff. However, institutions must pay for the cost of reproducing it from the electronic master file, which is sent upon request. Data entry and analysis costs are the responsibility of the party requesting the survey, which can be administered in a sit-down, phone, or mail format. No testing supervisors are required.

Institutions or organizations interested in using the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being should send a request and description of how the instrument will be used to Dr. Carol Ryff; University of Wisconsin; Institute on Aging; 2245 Medical Sciences Center; 1300 University Avenue; Madison, WI 53706; Phone: (608) 262-1818; Fax: (608) 263-6211; Dr. Ryff requests that institutions or organizations provide her with the results of their study and any subsequent journal article citations.


The Theory Behind the Test

Assessing theoretically-derived constructs of psychological well-being has been mired in fundamental challenges. For much of the past century, hypothetical perspectives of well-being had little, if any, empirical impact because they lacked credible measures. Additionally, the criteria regarding what constituted well-being were diverse, extensive, and value-laden. Because credible theoretically-derived assessments of psychological well-being were nonexistent, non-theoretical conceptions were frequently used, though they were limited in their definition of constructs. [11]

Researcher Carol Ryff recognized the need for an instrument to measure theoretically-derived constructs of psychological well-being. After summarizing the theoretical literature in mental health [6], self-actualization [7], optimal functioning [10], maturity [1], and developmental lifespan [2, 3, 4, 8, 9], Ryff found these diverse areas converged around a set of core constructs or dimensions: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. [11]


Development of Instrument

Ryff began the process of designing an instrument to measure the theoretically-grounded core dimensions of psychological well-being by crafting definitions that would distinguish the poles of each dimension, measured as a scale. For example, a high scorer on self-acceptance “possesses a positive attitude toward the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self including good and bad qualities; [and] feels positive about past life,” while a low scorer on this same scale “feels dissatisfied with self; is disappointed with what has occurred with past life; is troubled about certain personal qualities; [and] wishes to be different than what he or she is.” [11, p.1071] See Table 1 for all definitions of theory-guided dimensions of well-being.

Using the definitions as a guide, writers created 80 items for each scale (40 for each pole of the scale’s definition). The guidelines for the items were (1) the item had to be self-descriptive and fit with the theoretical definition, and (2) the item had to be applicable to both sexes of varying age. Items were then eliminated if they were ambiguous; redundant; lacked fit with their dimension definition, distinctiveness from other dimensions, or the ability to produce variable responses; or did not incorporate all facets of the scale’s definition. [11] From this elimination process, 32 items for each scale (16 for each pole of the scale’s definition) were retained. This instrument was then provisionally tested on a group of 321 men and women. Respondents rated themselves on each item using a six-point scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

From the data of the 321 respondents, item-to-scale correlations were computed, resulting in another round of item elimination. At the final stage, each scale was comprised of 20 items (roughly 10 for each pole of the scale’s definition).

There are currently three versions of the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being. The longest consists of 84 items (14 for each scale) and is used by Ryff and her colleagues at the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The mid-length version consists of 54 items (9 per scale) and is currently being used by the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. The shortest version, developed for national telephone surveys, consists of 18 items (3 per scale) and is used in a variety of large-scale national and international surveys. The multidimensional structure of psychological well-being, as measured by the Ryff inventory, has been tested and validated on a nationally representative sample of English-speaking adults age 25 and older. [12]

Internal consistency (often measured by Cronbach’s alpha) refers to the probability of responses from a set of items in a scale to be the same. The short version of the Ryff instrument has low internal consistency and is not recommended for high-quality assessment of psychological well-being. See Table 2 below.  



Table 2

Psychometric Properties of the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being

Scales Internal Consistency of 20-item Parent Scale Test-retest Reliability of 20-item Parent Scale 14-item Scale Correlation with 20-item Parent Scale Internal Consistency of 20-item Parent Scale Internal Consistency of 3-item Scale
Self-acceptance .93 .85 .99 .91 .52
Positive Relations with Others                    .91 .83 .98 .88 .56
Autonomy .86 .88 .97 .83 .37
Environmental Mastery .90 .81 .98 .86 .49
Purpose in Life .90 .82 .98 .88 .33
Personal Growth .87 .81 .97 .85 .40


Despite some minor limitations (e.g., the instrument has not been explicitly tested on traditional-age college students, low internal consistency of the short version, and the possibility of self-presentation bias), I find the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being to be a valid and reliable measure of psychological well-being. It can aid colleges and universities in understanding the degree to which their students are self-accepting, are pursuing meaningful goals with a sense of purpose in life, have established quality ties with others, are autonomous in thought and action, have the ability to manage complex environments to suit personal needs and values, and continue to grow and develop. Although the instrument does not measure all dimensions of well-being, the knowledge of  students’ psychological well-being can aid institutions in developing meaningful and intentional programming to enhance these dimensions of well-being.



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