Psychology of Subjective Well-Being Research Paper

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When people evaluate the quality of their lives, we label this ‘subjective well-being.’ Their appraisals might come in the form of life satisfaction judgements, as pleasant emotional reactions to life events, or as feelings of fulfillment. Thus, subjective well-being (SWB) includes both cognitive judgements and affective reactions in which people evaluate their lives and circumstances. It can vary from abject depression and complete dissatisfaction at the low end, to elation and consummate satisfaction at the high end. In addition to reactions to one’s life taken as a whole, subjective well-being includes evaluations of specific components of one’s life such as work, marriage, health, recreation, and religion. SWB includes global assessments of a person’s life from childhood to the present, and also more specific evaluations that are focused on a narrower time frame such as the past month. In sum, SWB includes all the components about how people think of and evaluate their lives. SWB includes everyday concepts such as happiness, morale, zest for life, and peace of mind.

1. Subjective Well-Being And Quality Of Life

A pivotal early finding in the field was Bradburn’s (1969) discovery that pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions form separable entities, and different factors influence each. In other words happy emotions and unhappy ones are not polar opposites: people’s experience of one does not tell us much about how much of the other they feel. The importance of this finding is that even if we understand totally what causes depression, anxiety, and unhappiness, we may have little knowledge of what causes positive feelings of joy, affection, and contentment. Thus, we must understand the positive end of well-being to gain a full understanding of quality of life. The balance between pleasant and unpleasant emotions in a person’s life is termed ‘hedonic balance.’

In the 1970s another major component was added to SWB: life satisfaction. It was discovered that although satisfaction with life was related to hedonic balance, it formed a separate factor. Therefore it is now commonplace for SWB researchers to measure life satisfaction, pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, and satisfaction with specific life domains.

The classic Greek philosophers inquired as to what constitutes the ‘good life,’ and Asian thinkers such as Confucius explored similar questions. Many valued characteristics such as virtue, wisdom, and pleasure have been proposed as essential components of the quality of life. In the field of subjective well-being, researchers examine how people themselves evaluate their lives, using whatever standards and characteristics they choose. In this approach the factors that determine whether people will view their life as good are studied, and researchers do not impose their own set of values in judging that life. Thus, SWB is a democratic approach to quality of life in that it grants recognition to people’s own evaluations of their lives.

As the wealthier nations achieved economic prosperity during the twentieth century, people became increasingly concerned with quality of life that goes beyond material prosperity. Social indicators measuring factors such as education, health, and equality arose in order to yield a measure of well-being that transcended economic security. At the same time, after World War II an interest in subjective well-being variables led survey researchers to measure quality of life from people’s internal frame of reference. Pollsters asked people how satisfied and happy they were. In early survey research there was an emphasis on the effects of demographic variables on SWB. For example, Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers (1976) examined samples of Americans, and determined how much demographic factors such as age, sex, income, education, and ethnic group correlated with reports of SWB. To their surprise—and this finding has been replicated numerous times—demographic variables accounted only for a modest portion of SWB. If demographic variables such as income do not account for much of the variation in SWB, what does?

2. Temperament

People’s personalities have an important influence on whether they are happy or unhappy (see Diener and Lucas, chap. 11 in Kahneman et al. 1999). Studies of monozygotic vs. dizygotic twins who were reared together or apart from birth demonstrate that SWB has a substantial heritable component. Because they share all their genes in common, identical twins reared apart are more similar in their levels of SWB than are fraternal twins who are raised together. Although heritability tends to be strong, the influence of shared early home environment appears to be weak. Other types of studies tend to support the importance of personality to SWB. For example, there is a substantial consistency across situations in people’s satisfaction, as well as considerable stability of SWB in adulthood. Furthermore, personality traits such as extraversion and neuroticism show substantial correlations with levels of pleasant and unpleasant affect, respectively (Headey and Wearing, 1989).

3. Adaptation

When good and bad events happen to people, it is not surprising that they react with happiness or unhappiness. Over time, however, they usually adapt, returning toward their earlier level of SWB (see Diener et al. 1999 for a review). Often people may adapt to very good or very bad events in a relatively short time. Adaptation combined with the effects of personality led Headey and Wearing (1989) to propose the ‘dynamic equilibrium’ model in which personality determines the long-term baseline level of SWB, but in which events can temporarily move people above or below their baseline. However, it must be noted that people do not completely adapt to all life circumstances; some environmental factors can move people’s baseline up or down. For example, people who are born with multiple disabilities are less happy as adults, even though they have had many years to adapt to their conditions. Similarly, people in very poor nations are also less happy than those in wealthy nations. Thus, happiness seems to arise from a combination of the effects of personality with long-term conditions that have a pervasive effect on people’s lives. Recently, the idea has emerged that SWB also depends on cognitive habits related to how people perceive and interpret events.

4. Goals

People have various values and goals that they believe are important. When they make progress toward their goals, they tend to be happier, and when they fail to move toward their goals, they are less happy. One way that people can adapt to bad conditions is to change their goals. For example, if a woman is failing at her goal to become president, she might focus on doing her job particularly well, and on the accomplishments within that position, and therefore the disappointment due to the failure would be likely to diminish. On the other hand, happy people tend to adopt goals for which they possess adequate resources to be successful. Thus, it is found that resources such as money, physical attractiveness, or social skills are most related to SWB when they are relevant to achieving the person’s goals (see Diener et al. 1999).

Ryff and Singer (1998) propose that purpose and meaning in life are essential to mental health. Several researchers have concluded, however, that the content of a person’s goals can influence SWB. Brunstein et al. (1998) found that goal strivings must be congruent with a person’s motives to produce SWB, and Kasser and Ryan (1996) proposed that goals must be intrinsic rather than imposed to enhance SWB. Emmons (1986) found that success at goal strivings is related to positive affect, whereas conflict between one’s goals is related to negative affect. Thus, the relation between goal striving and SWB is more complex than originally believed.

5. Cultural Differences In Subjective Well-Being

Certain variables predict life satisfaction in some cultures, but not in others (Diener and Suh 2000). For example, self-esteem is a strong correlate of satisfaction in highly westernized, individualistic cultures, but not in collectivistic societies where the group is more important in defining who one is. Similarly, consistency and acting in congruence with the self are stronger predictors of SWB in individualistic than in collectivistic cultures. Also, individualists on average heavily use their own emotional feelings to judge their life satisfaction, whereas collectivists are more likely to weight normative prescriptions for happiness, and the views of others. For collectivists, SWB must include the belief that significant others evaluate one’s life well. The explanation for these differences between nations is that various cultures emphasize different values and goals, and therefore tend to make certain information chronically salient so that it is used when people judge their lives.

Not only are there cultural differences in the correlates of SWB, but average SWB levels differ across nations as well. For instance, high levels of SWB are currently reported in northern European nations, whereas much lower levels are reported in eastern European countries. Several factors seem to account for the differences between nations in SWB: wealth versus poverty, political stability versus instability and social disruption, and culture. In terms of culture, some societies seem to emphasize a positive approach to life, and the desirability of happiness. In these ‘positivity cultures’ there are higher levels of satisfaction than are predicted based on wealth or objective factors alone.

6. Changing Focus

In the early days of research on SWB, the focus was on large surveys, and the determination of what demographic factors are most correlated with ‘happiness.’ Recently attention has shifted to the influence of temperament, in combination with environmental circumstances. However, another new direction is to examine the processes that determine feelings of wellbeing. For example, the goals people select may be as important to satisfaction as are objective life circumstances. Similarly, people may focus on the desirable elements in their lives or the problems, and this can influence their SWB. People’s memory structures for good versus bad events, their interpretation of events, and the information they use when judging their life circumstances have recently become important topics of study.

7. Methodological Issues

Because the area of subjective well-being has roots in survey research, broad, representative samples of many nations are available, and this has been a major strength of the field. Questions arise, however, in considering the validity of the measures of SWB. Virtually all measurement of variables in this area have been based on global self-reports: on one occasion people report on numbered scales how happy or satisfied they are. Fortunately, research has shown that there is a degree of validity to these survey instruments. The SWB scales correlate with nonself-report measures such as smiling, the reports of family and friends, interviewer ratings, daily reports of mood, and whether individuals can quickly recall more good events than bad events from their lives. Nonetheless, certain obvious biases can enter into self-report measures of SWB. For example, people cannot recall with accuracy their moods over a long period of time. For this reason, researchers in the field have begun to supplement the global self-report measures with experience sampling measures of SWB, in which people are asked at random moments about their moods and level of satisfaction. The most desirable way to measure SWB is with a battery of assessment devices, including experience sampling, informant reports, and memory measures because these measurement methods complement each other in terms of protecting against specific measurement artifacts, and also because together they yield a multimodal assessment of various manifestations of well-being: experience (global self-reports and experience sampling), behavior (reports of informants and nonverbal behavior), and memory (the recall of good and bad events).

One of the challenges in studying SWB is to determine what causes it and what is caused by it. Because it is difficult to do experimental work with random assignment to conditions in this field, most work is correlational and cross-sectional. This leaves open the question of whether many variables are causes or consequences of SWB. For example, if people feel in control of their lives and report that their marriage is strong, are these causes of happiness, results of being happy, or caused by some third variable such as temperament? Diener (1984) referred to this issue as the question of ‘top-down’ vs. ‘bottom up’ influences on SWB.

One method used to gain some insight into causal networks influencing SWB is longitudinal panel designs in which people are measured repeatedly over time. From such data we can conclude, for example, that marriage on average causes SWB rather than simply the alternative explanations that happy people marry more often, and stay married more. Similarly, there is longitudinal evidence suggesting that income leads to somewhat higher SWB rather than it being the case that happy people earn more money. In a few areas there are experimental or quasiexperimental studies. For instance, lottery winners seem to be somewhat happier than controls, suggesting that money may have a causal influence on SWB. In addition, negative income tax experiments (in which randomly selected welfare recipients are given greater monetary benefits) suggest that increased income can also heighten stress. Thus, there is beginning to be some examination of causality in this field, but most conclusions remain based on self-report measurement at a single point in time, and thus do not speak to issues of causality.

8. Future Research

Because subjective well-being is a relatively new field, and scientists have only recently begun research in this area, there are many unanswered questions. One issue is, given the influence of temperament, the degree to which happiness can be learned. For instance, can people learn cognitive styles of perceiving and interpreting the world that will heighten their joy and contentment? A related question is: what is the optimal level of SWB? People cannot and should not be happy every moment; the unpleasant emotions serve useful functions. But what degree of pleasant vs unpleasant emotions is optimal for healthy functioning? Similarly, what level of life satisfaction will allow people to remain motivated and perform well, and yet view their lives in positive terms?

The possibility of attaining happiness through modern drugs brings the above question into focus. On the one hand, people could conceivably make themselves very happy on an ongoing basis with drugs that will be created in the foreseeable future, pharmacopeias without the side-effects of current drugs. Would this method of achieving happiness undercut motivation and interfere with our other values? For example, might people become too happy, and might they then ignore good social relationships and personal responsibilities?

The scientific study of subjective well-being is in its infancy, and therefore researchable questions abound in virtually every area. We now have developed, however, the basic methodological tools to analyze empirically how people feel about their lives, and why.


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