Using the Day Reconstruction Method - Same Results when Used at the End of the Day or on the Next Day?

  • Kai LudwigsEmail author
  • Lena Henning
  • Lidia R. Arends
Original Research Article


The day reconstruction method (DRM; Kahneman et al. A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776–1780, 2004) constitutes a frequently used method aiming to capture everyday life and everyday feelings. Especially in the field of community well-being research this method can bring meaningful insights. In its original version and in most subsequent studies, respondents are asked to complete the DRM with respect to their previous day on the next day. Yet when asked, respondents prefer to work on the DRM in the evening of the same day, particularly in longitudinal studies where the motivation to complete the DRM proactively on one’s own is crucial. Consequently, it is important to consider respondents’ preferences about their favoured point in time to fill in the DRM. Thus, the question whether a flexible DRM usage that offers the freedom to work on the DRM in the evening of the same day or on the next day should arise. Reluctance in doing so is reasonable since research on differences in answering patterns between these two points in time is pending. The current study sheds light on this research question by comparing respondents’ happiness during the reconstructed episodes in both settings (same day vs. next day). A DRM smartphone application was used with a group collected from the Innovation Sample of the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP-IS). The results reveal that the point in time during which people fill in the DRM has no significant effect on respondent’s happiness ratings. In sum, although an experiment is needed to replicate our findings, our research suggests that researchers might consider (especially for longitudinal studies) to give participants free choice to do the DRM on the evening of the same day or on the next day if they want to reduce response burden in order to increase participation rates.


Day reconstruction method Community well-being Happiness Time-use Timing Rating Bias 


Several decades ago, researchers introduced a method meant to investigate the topic of subjective well-being or happiness as closely aligned to people’s everyday lives by measuring their “daily moods over an extended period” (Sandvik et al. 1993, p. 321). When applying the so-called experience sampling method (ESM: Csikszentmihalyi and Larson 2014, 1977; Hektner et al. 2007), also known as ecological momentary assessment (EMA: Stone and Shiffman 1994; Stone et al. 1999), respondents are contacted via a beeper (or nowadays via their mobile devices: MacKerron 2012; Hendriks et al. 2016) several times a day over the course of a longer time period by asking them to complete questions on what their current activity is, where they are doing it, with whom they are doing it and how happy they are doing it. In the original study, answers were recorded via a paper-pencil format; thus, respondents needed to carry this equipment with them all the time (Csikszentmihalyi et al. 1977). Consequently, researchers were required to make ESM sheets and pencils available, and ultimately, they needed to manually transfer the entire data sets to a PC. Overall, it is not surprising that the ESM/EMA is repeatedly described as a rather time-consuming and costly method to capture happiness during everyday life (Dolan and White 2007; Kahneman et al. 2004; Krueger and Schkade 2008). The ESM/EMA has also been criticized to only show excerpts of everyday life instead of depicting the whole day and thus not allowing precise time use information (Kahneman et al. 2004).

To address these shortcomings, Kahneman and colleagues (Kahneman et al. 2004) developed the DRM, where respondents are regularly asked to reconstruct their prior day in single episodes, such as filling in a diary (e.g., 8–9 o’clock breakfast, 9–12 o’clock work). Thus, they indicate which activities they undertook in which time period, where as well as with whom and how happy they were doing so. In this way, the DRM has become a frequently used (e.g., Bakker et al. 2013; Berkhout et al. 2015; Bylsma et al. 2011; Dockray et al. 2010; Doyle et al. 2015; Hendriks et al. 2016; John and Lang 2015; Kahneman et al. 2004; Knabe et al. 2015; Stone et al. 2006) and gradually well-validated method (e.g., Anusic et al. 2016; Diener and Tay 2014; Dockray et al. 2010; Kahneman et al. 2004; Schneider and Stone 2016) that works more efficiently than the ESM/EMA, delivering additional information about people’s time use during the course of entire days.

Especially in the field of community well-being research the DRM method can bring meaningful insights about people’s everyday life and thus help to understand which interventions in a community can improve people’s subjective well-being and their community well-being. For example, Kim and Ludwigs (2017) were able to show this in a case study in Frankfurt, Germany.

According to Kahneman and colleagues’ (Kahneman et al. 2004) traditional version, respondents are asked to complete the DRM with respect to yesterday, meaning that one night is in between the day of interest and the current point in time. Overall, the vast majority of investigations are in line with this approach (Anusic et al. 2016; Berkhout et al. 2015; Bylsma et al. 2011; Doyle et al. 2015; Hendriks et al. 2016; John and Lang 2015; Knabe et al. 2015; Schneider and Stone 2016; Stone et al. 2006).

In contrast, only a single study has required respondents to fill in the DRM after work to reconstruct their workday, in the evening directly before retiring (Bakker et al. 2013). Interestingly, if respondents are asked about their preferred DRM notification time, almost 70% would like to complete their diary in the evening before going to bed – whereas roughly 20% prefer the next morning (Ludwigs and Erdtmann 2017). The other 10% did not have a preference. Consequently, current investigations neglect respondents’ preferences regarding what point in time they are most motivated to complete the DRM. In fact, this could be a crucial point with respect to longitudinal studies where respondents are required to fill in their DRM modules every single day. For example, in Bakker et al.’s study (2013), about three-quarter of the employees asked to complete a DRM module during the evening of each of nine subsequent working days during which they ultimately finished all of them. Hence, about one-quarter of the respondents did not give their whole commitment for the study. Similarly, in another investigation (Hendriks et al. 2016), roughly three-quarter of respondents completed the minimum of DRM modules (always in the morning) required to be included in analyses (which was set at 10 of 15 DRM modules). Consequently, about one-quarter dropped out. In sum, both studies kept the DRM notification time constant and ultimately excluded about one-quarter of respondents from their analyses. Thus, making respondents motivated to fill in more DRM modules is essential for this research field. One promising step can be to give respondents the chance to make their day reconstructions at the point in time that they like to do it – either already on the same or on the next day. But how can such a flexible DRM application be organized in a way that is as efficient and as feasible as possible? With consideration to current data collection designs, it becomes obvious that this purpose is difficult to achieve, as some researchers use the self-administered, classical paper-pencil format (Bylsma et al. 2011; Kahneman et al. 2004; Stone et al. 2006), others use interviewers (Anusic et al. 2016; Berkhout et al. 2015; Doyle et al. 2015; Knabe et al. 2015), and several prefer a DRM web version (Bakker et al. 2013; Dockray et al. 2010; John and Lang 2015; Veenhoven, Bakker, & Oerlemans1). All of these methods exhibit some weaknesses when trying to implement flexible DRM usage in longitudinal studies. In terms of the paper-pencil format, it becomes more difficult to control for respondents’ commitment. Even if they are reminded by email or notified in another way, this message is not directly linked to the DRM booklet that they are required to work on. Hence, as soon as respondents receive a reminder via email and currently travel by train without carrying the booklet with them, they will probably forget to complete their DRM at a later point in time at home. With respect to the DRM method in which an interviewer is involved, he/she needs to be able to react enormously flexible on the respondents’ DRM answering time preferences. Additionally, this approach might be burdensome for respondents because, on the one hand, they may like to work on the DRM in the evening but, on the other hand, they may not want to be called at 11 pm in the evening by an interviewer. Finally, the web version is challenging. Respondents do not carry their PC everywhere, and those with a smartphone available do not have access to the internet at every moment. Consequently, if respondents do not have access to a PC or a web-enabled smartphone, they may simply forget to work on the diary. To solve this methodological challenge, recent digital technologies bring new possibilities for applying the DRM in a flexible way while being efficient and close to participants’ behavioural preferences. For example, Hendriks and colleagues (Hendriks et al. 2016) utilized a DRM smartphone application that is capable of working in an offline mode. Since respondents are used to carrying their mobile devices with them, the DRM survey is closely linked to their everyday lives. In addition, notifications sent to remind respondents on their DRM completion can immediately be replied to. In this way, more flexible DRM usage that is superior to currently common DRM implementations via paper-pencil, interviewers or websites can be realized.

Yet, before implementing such a flexible DRM application in research investigations, an important question needs to be answered: Do happiness ratings differ between these two points in time (same day vs. next day)? If the answer is “yes”, the results of respondents completing their diary in the morning cannot be compared with results of others answering their diary in the evening, as different things seem to be measured. However, if the answer results in a “no,” there is no reason why flexible DRM implementation should be avoided in future investigations. But what arguments play a role in this issue?

When making DRM judgments, respondents refer to the recent past and thus rate their happiness with consideration to retrospective episodes. Two kinds of memory that they can consciously made use of exist: semantic memory vs. episodic memory: The former “registers and stores knowledge about the world in the broadest sense and makes it available for retrieval. [...] [It] enables individuals to represent and mentally operate on situations, objects, and relations in the world that are not present to the senses: The owner of a semantic memory system can think about things that are not here now” (Tulving 1993, p. 67). In contrast, the latter “enables a person to remember personally experienced events as such. That is, it makes it possible for a person to be consciously aware of an earlier experience in a certain situation at a certain time” (Tulving 1993, p. 67). As the DRM refers to information as stored and retrieved in episodic memory, respondents should generally utilize this kind of memory when reconstructing their previous day. Another finding supports this point of view: Robinson and Clore (2002a) suggested that the transition from episodic to semantic memory can/could take several weeks. However, the DRM exclusively refers to the last day of memory, making it improbable that episodic memories have changed to semantic ones. To conclude, respondents seem to apply their episodic memories when recalling single episodes of their previous day.

A challenge that needs to be addressed regarding this kind of memory is that episodic memory declines quickly (Rubin and Wenzel 1996; Conway 2001) or that past experiences are more difficult to retrieve as time elapses since encoding (Krosnick and Presser 2010). Consequently, respondents cannot re-experience a certain emotional experience exactly as they were (Galin 1994). Accordingly, when asked to reconstruct past experiences after a longer time delay, respondents are prone to unintentional recall biases (Krosnick and Presser 2010) that can distort their answers and thus their perceived happiness levels. One example for such a bias consists in the “Peak-End effect” (Kahneman 1999, p. 19): When trying to reconstruct an episode of the previous day, respondents orientate towards the strongest feelings experienced during this period of time (“Peak”) as well as towards the final emotions just before episode ending (“End”). As memory loss should have progressed more on the next morning than during the evening, respondents are more likely to be more prone to this bias on the next morning. This finding indicates that the reconstruction of emotional experiences differs, probably leading to diverging episodic happiness judgements. Another crucial point is that respondents are used to referring to contextual information during retrieval process. Unfortunately, the ability to recall contextual details also diminishes quickly (Robinson and Clore 2002b). Consequently, memory distortions with respect to experiential emotional information should be more probable on next morning than during the evening. Furthermore, another opportunity for a potential bias arises since respondents use their current emotions as a basis for retrieval. Research investigations have robustly shown that happiness levels tended to rise over the course of the day (Ayuso-Mateos et al. 2013; Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter 2003; Daly et al. 2011; Egloff et al. 1995; Kroenke et al. 2012; Mihalcea and Liu 2006; Sakawa et al. 2015), indicating that happiness levels are generally the lowest in the morning and the highest in the evening. Consequently, negatively connoted moods in the morning are able to distort happiness ratings for past experiences in a negative way. Overall, these findings indicate that because memory is likely worse for recent experiences during the next morning, respondents are subjected to various kinds of biases that can distort their memory for emotional experiences. Overall, this at first sight suggests differing answers of respondents completing the DRM in the evening of the same day vs. on the next day.

In contrast to this perspective, Conway (2001) claimed that episodic memory might be available for 24 h. Therefore, it can be assumed that the representations of emotional experiences should also be quite accurate during the next day. This idea is supported by findings indicating the important role that sleep plays in the consolidation of memory (Diekelmann and Born 2010). Memory consolidation “refers to a process that transforms new and initially labile memories encoded in the awake state into more stable representations that become integrated into the network of pre-existing long-term memories” (Diekelmann and Born 2010, p. 114) and has already been demonstrated for both emotional (Hu et al. 2006; Nishida et al. 2009) as well as episodic memory (van der Helm et al. 2011; Oyanedel et al. 2014; Weber et al. 2014). Consequently, memory consolidation should prevent memory loss, and therefore differences between answers on the same day vs. the next day. Yet, researchers have shown that because of the limitation of memory capacity, sleep not only benefits the consolidation of certain memories but also is responsible for the loss of others (Wilhelm et al. 2011). In this regard, Wilhelm and colleagues (Wilhelm et al. 2011) tested whether specific memories are particularly consolidated during sleep. Their results revealed that sleep especially benefitted the consolidation of memory if respondents expected that their memory would be used in the future. The design of the current study assures that respondents are aware of their exercise to regularly reconstruct their previous day on the next day. Consequently, sleep should facilitate memory consolidation with respect to the information respondents need for recalling the day. In sum, the following implications can be drawn from this second line of argumentation: Episodic memory does not seem to suffer under the present study conditions, under the prediction that there is the same memory for emotional experiences on the same day vs. the next day. Thus, episodic happiness ratings should not distinguish between the evening of the same day vs. the ratings on the next day.

Overall, two contradicting but both reasonable lines of argumentation have been described, one predicting differences and one predicting no differences between retrospective judgments when done either on the same day vs. on the next day. To conclude, we sum up our research question for the current study:
  • Do respondents’ DRM happiness ratings differ depending on whether they fill in the DRM on the evening of the same day vs. the next day?

The research question is investigated in a sample collected from the Innovation Sample of the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP-IS; Richter and Schupp 2015). The exact research design is described in detail in the following “Method”section.



The sample was collected after household interviews with 1869 participants of the Innovation Sample of the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP-IS; Richter and Schupp 2015). The interviewers showed the participants a video about a study to measure German citizens’ daily happiness and a screencast of the survey app. Then, the participants were asked whether they would participate in the study for a 50 Euro Amazon voucher in the case that they answer 6 of 7 DRM modules within one week.

Overall, 374 participants participated in the study and filled in all demographic questions and answered at least 1 DRM. They all received a notification to do the DRM at 9 pm every evening for 7 days and had 24 h to answer it. For our study only participants matter who did at least 1 DRM on the evening of the same day and at least 1 DRM on the next day (defined like this when the participant filled in the DRM after he or she slept which we were able to see in the reported DRM episodes). 79 participants match these criteria (289 participants did all DRMs on the evening of the same day and 4 did all DRMs on the next day). In total, we received 5073 described DRM episodes and happiness ratings, 3707 were filled in on the same day and 1366 were filled in on the next day. More detailed information on the demographics can be seen in Table 1.
Table 1

Descriptive characteristics of the sample (N = 79)


Mean / %



Gender (% female)


Income (% lower than average)


Education (% Bachelor degree or higher)


Household situation (% alone)


Job (% yes)


Migration background (% yes)


Religious (% yes)


The table displays the descriptive characteristics of the sample


For the study the smartphone app “Happiness Analyzer” (Ludwigs and Erdtmann 2017; see Fig. 1) was adapted to survey questions and the DRM. As mentioned before, the current study made use of Kahneman and colleagues’ DRM (Kahneman et al. 2004). However, several features differed from the original DRM version and were adapted for several reasons:
  1. (i)

    The DRM was integrated into a smartphone application (original DRM version: paper-pencil format). By doing so, the potential of this kind of technology for future studies with flexible DRM timings can be best tested. In addition, filling in a DRM via a smartphone application already causes more time efficiency compared with its traditional completion.

  2. (ii)

    In its original version, respondents were asked to rate every episode with respect to 12 different emotions. Yet, this poses a substantial burden on participants (Hendriks et al. 2016). Additionally, single-item measures on happiness were found to strongly correlate with multi-item measures of the same construct (Knabe et al. 2010), implying that the former could be used as an alternative to the latter. Furthermore, it can be questioned how far individuals are generally capable of judging such a large variety of different emotions for every single episode, indicating that asking for many different emotions may result in answers of relatively low validity. Another crucial point is that there is no consensus about how to address various weightings when aggregating all these multiple emotions (White and Dolan 2009). In contrast, single-item measures on happiness require from the respondent to conduct this challenging aggregation process individually. In this way, the weighting problem can be avoided. In addition, positive and negative emotions could be found to be located on distinctive dimensions (Cacioppo and Bernston 1994), hampering the aggregating process additionally. All these disadvantages of multiple-item measures of happiness led us to the decision to use only a single item on perceived happiness instead of 12 affective items. Thus, in total, participants were asked to describe their full day from one midnight to another in episodes (e.g., lunch from 1 to 2 pm), indicating where every episodic activity took place, which persons were present and how respondents perceived their happiness doing so. Single-item happiness ratings were obtained by means of a smiley scale developed by Veenhoven in 2004 and episodic activities, locations and associated persons needed to be specified with the help of before quantified and already tested answering categories (Hendriks et al. 2016).

  3. (iii)

    Contradictory to Kahneman et al.’s (2004) original DRM version, the current study made use of a longitudinal design. Hence, the DRM needed to be completed not only at one time but also at several times successively. The benefit of doing so consists in obtaining results that are in general more representative for the respondents’ actual emotions during the reported episodes.

Fig. 1

Exemplary app extract showing the integrated DRM. The screenshots will be explained in the following from the top left to the bottom right: On the first picture the participant defines an episode (e.g. 9:00–9:30 am). Then the participant can define what he or she did in this time-period, where he or she was and who was with him or her. After the whole day is defined by the participant, he or she rates all episodes on a 0–10 smiley scale. At the end, the whole day has to be rated on the same scale and it is defined what kind of day it was (workday or holiday). Afterwards, the participant can see the average results of his or her DRM ratings: The average rating on the different days and the average ratings of different activities, locations and social environments

Additionally, demographic data were collected of both DRM groups (same day vs. next day) in the beginning of the app. The questionnaire comprised questions about the individual respondent’s age, gender, income, education, household situation, job status, migration background and religion.


After participants downloaded the app, they were shown a tutorial on the DRM. Then, they had to answer the personal questions. On the next day they were notified to do a DRM module at 9 pm and had 24 h to fill it in. Over the next six days, the same procedure was followed, and if they answered at least 6 of the 7 DRM modules, they were rewarded with a 50 Euro Amazon voucher code in the app. Through the app, they could examine their average happiness level development over the course of the one-week study, and their happiness level graphs were calculated for all different activities, locations, and social environments (see Fig. 1 for an illustration of the mentioned app).


A within-subjects design with two different settings (DRM filled in on the same day vs. DRM filled in on the next day) as independent variables was used. The dependent variable was the happiness rating for every episode.


In order to analyze if there is a difference between the happiness ratings in a DRM when filled in on the same day compared to when filled in on the next day, we calculated repeated measures ANOVAs for the overall average happiness ratings in both settings and all average single ratings for all locations, social environments and activities in both settings. We find no significant effect between the two settings, neither in the overall average happiness ratings (F = 0.04; p = .846), nor in the average single ratings. The detailed results for every main location, social environment and activity rating that had at least 30 happiness ratings per setting is displayed in Table 2 below. The various codes in this table are exactly the ones that the participants saw and defined when filling in the DRM.
Table 2

Comparison between the DRM happiness ratings when filled in on the same day or on the next day (N = 79)


Same day

M (SE)

Next day

M (SE)



#Happiness ratings

#Happiness ratings

General rating


6.99 (0.12)


7.00 (0.14)






7.02 (0.12)


6.97 (0.15)



 At Work


6.77 (0.23)


6.85 (0.22)





7.09 (0.14)


7.08 (0.16)



Social environment:



6.78 (0.13)


6.64 (0.16)





8.00 (0.31)


7.80 (0.33)



 Own Child(ren)


6.88 (0.21)


6.80 (0.30)





7.25 (0.31)


7.16 (0.41)





6.70 (0.28)


6.62 (0.27)





7.42 (0.19)


7.41 (0.22)





7.18 (0.42)


7.21 (0.52)






7.14 (0.17)


7.09 (0.18)



 Getting ready


6.27 (0.18)


6.45 (0.18)



 On the move


6.77 (0.19)


6.85 (0.19)





6.73 (0.21)


6.70 (0.20)





7.24 (0.14)


7.28 (0.16)





6.58 (0.26)


6.39 (0.26)





7.62 (0.21)


7.46 (0.25)



 Free time


7.84 (0.17)


7.65 (0.27)



 Leisure Media


7.09 (0.18)


7.12 (0.22)



The table displays the comparison between the happiness ratings when the DRM is filled in on the same day compared to when it is filled in on the next day within one person. As can be seen there are no significant differences between the two settings

Discussion and Conclusions

Most studies are aligned with the design of Kahneman and colleagues’ (Kahneman et al. 2004) original study by requiring respondents to reconstruct their previous day on the next day (Anusic et al. 2016; Berkhout et al. 2015; Bylsma et al. 2011; Doyle et al. 2015; Hendriks et al. 2016; John and Lang 2015; Knabe et al. 2015; Schneider and Stone 2016; Stone et al. 2006). Yet, when directly asked about their preferred DRM completion day time, most respondents favour the evening of the same day (about 70%), whereas 20% prefer the morning (Ludwigs and Erdtmann 2017), indicating that current studies usually disregard respondents’ preferences. However, especially for longitudinal studies, respondent motivation is of tremendous relevance for gaining large DRM datasets. Thus, why are respondents not allowed to use the DRM in a flexible way, either in the evening of the same day or on the next day, as they prefer? Reluctance to do so was generally reasonable since no study to date has investigated potentially differing answering patterns between respondents completing the DRM in the evening of the same day vs. on the next day. Therefore, we ran this study.

Our results do not show a significant effect between the two settings. This is in line with Conway’s argumentation (2001) that the episodic memory does not suffer for about 24 h and thus episodic happiness ratings should not distinguish between the evening of the same day vs. the ratings on the next day (see introduction).

But it is important to underline that our study is only quasi-experimental and that the sample size is limited. In order to investigate if there is really no significant effect between the two settings it is mandatory to run a study with a representative sample where participants would do the DRM half of the days on the evening of the same day and the other half of the days on the morning of the next day giving participants the same amount of time in both settings (e.g. 9 pm until 2 am and 6 am until 11 am).

Taking this limitation into account, we suggest that researchers might consider (especially for longitudinal studies) to give participants free choice to do the DRM on the evening of the same day or on the next day if they want to reduce response burden in order to increase participation rates.


  1. 1.

    Free website access: (lastly retrieved on: 2017-07-31)


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

We hereby confirm that no one of the authors has any conflict of interest with this publication. Additionally, we declare that this research was conducted in line with the Declaration of Helsinki which explains all main rules for human research ethics.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Happiness Research OrganisationDüsseldorfGermany
  2. 2.Erasmus University RotterdamRotterdamNetherlands

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