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Subjective Well-Being


Techniques Happiness > Subjective Well-Being

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Well-being has long been of interest to philosophers, but only recently has fallen into psychologists' sphere of interest.

'Subjective Well-Being', sometimes abbreviated as 'SWB' is a commonly-used measure of what many think of as happiness, although in psychology SWB has a somewhat broader definition (although papers on the subject sometimes use the terms interchangeably).

'Subjective' means that it is what people feel and report. You cannot yet stick probes into the brain to measure happiness. All we can do is listen to what people say. As with any subjective assessment, this is only a perception, but it nevertheless has received a lot of attention and has proven useful.

'Well-being' seems something of a medical interpretation for what we usually call 'happiness'. For psychologists, however it is a wider subject.

SWB includes both cognitive and emotional aspects. Cognitions about well-being cover overall satisfaction with life and specific external factors. Emotionally, happiness is an internal feeling and has a more hedonic content.

SWB is not just about the positives. Absence of negative situations and emotions are also important for well-being. Feeling angry or fearful can hence reduce SWB, as can dwelling on the problems of life.

In his definitive article, Ed Diener (1984) defines three ways we look at well-being:

  • LS: Life satisfaction
  • PA: Positive affect
  • NA: Negative affect

As well as life satisfaction, which is a general measure, Diener later added domain satisfaction (DS), where you can be satisfied with some parts of your life but not others (Diener, Suh, Lucas, and Smith, 1999). There is some debate as to whether LS causes DS or the other way around, or they are both caused by common factors such as personality.


There is a range of instruments that can be used to measure well-being, although negative/positive affect and cognition are typically measured separately, for example with Bradburn’s Affect-Balance Scale and Diener's Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).

Measures of SWB vary with the instrument being used. Here is a composite list of factors, with perceptions that people:

  1. Find meaning and purpose in life
  2. Have sufficient supportive friends and family
  3. Support others, sustaining their social capital
  4. Have interesting and challenging work
  5. Feel competent and able to handle life
  6. Are easily amused and smile or laugh often
  7. Are good, living by their values
  8. Get what they think they deserve
  9. Have a positive self-image
  10. Feel able to cope with life's emergencies
  11. Feel a sense of belonging
  12. Have fewer and less intense negative emotions
  13. Are optimistic, using much positive language
  14. Have basic needs sufficiently satisfied
  15. Expect a long, healthy life
  16. Do not expect traumatic experiences

Instruments can vary from a few broad questions about happiness or life, to longer lists of more specific items. As with any test, the holy grail is to ask the fewest questions that will still give a reliable and valid result.

Objective measures

General well-being measures may independently consider contextual factors which affect all people. This is 'objective well-being' as it is not subjective and seeks independent measures rather than asking people what they think and feel.

The notion of 'gross national happiness' considers influential factors such as economics, environment, health, institutions, politics and demographics. This can be a useful way for governments to assess overall satisfaction of their populace.

Although age is a factor, older people are not unhappy as some may think. In fact there is a U-shaped happiness curve through life, with the lowest ebb often in the 40s (Oswald 1997).

Money has a non-linear relationship with happiness. In what is sometimes called the 'Easterlin Paradox', happiness increases with income only for a while, after which it flattens off (Easterlin, 1974). It can also decrease with increasing wealth, perhaps as people fear losing it (it hence may also have a U-shaped profile, albeit inverted).

Religion can be a factor in SWB to the extent that it contributes towards meaning, confidence and other well-being factors. Other aspects of life can likewise help in this way, such as having a satisfactory marriage, successful children, meaningful work and so on.

The general success of a country, as typically measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has some effect on happiness but not as much as might be expected. Factors such as health, life-expectancy and a good family life are correlated with well-being.

GDP also correlates with factors such as obesity, which does not necessarily lead to happiness. Curiously, suicide tends to be higher in affluent societies, perhaps because of higher expectations and subsequent disappointment.

Two factors that have a negative effect on well-being that can be easily measured are unemployment and inflation. These have been combined in a 'misery index' (Di Tella, MacCulloch and Oswald 2001). Ill health and the death of a loved one can also have lasting effects. These both involve significant loss, other forms of which can have a strong depressive effect. Loss is a deep subject and is a consequence of attachment.


SWB is in our genes. In twin studies, Tellegen et al. (1988) shows that 40% of the variance in positive emotion and 55% of the variance in negative emotional is genetic.

Personality has some effect on SWB, particularly the Big Five 'openness' to experience. Neuroticism has a reversed effect, as the more anxious people are, the less satisfied they are.

An important driver of SWB is the way we compare ourselves against others. If everyone else has more money, then I will feel poor, envious and less happy. If I am far richer than my peers then that differential will damage friendly relations with them. Inequality hence tends to reduce happiness (Di Tella, MacCulloch and Oswald 2001).

See also

The Set-point Theory of Happiness


Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 3, 542-575

Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276-302

Diener, E. (2009). The Science of subjective well-being. The collected works of Ed Diener, Social Indicators Research Series, 37, New York, NY: Springer

Di Tella, Rafael, Robert J. MacCulloch and Andrew J. Oswald. (2001). Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness. American Economic Review, 91, 1, 335-341.

Easterlin, R. (1974). Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence. In P. David and M. Reder, eds. Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honour of Moses Abramovitz. New York and London: Academic Press

Gutierez, J.L.G., Jimenez, B.M., Hernandez, E.G. and b, Puente, C.P. (2005). Personality and Individual Differences. 38, 1561–1569

Kashdan, T.B. (2004). The assessment of subjective well-being (issues raised by the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire).  Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 1225–1232

Oswald, Andrew J. (1997). Happiness and Economic Performance. Economic Journal, 107, 5,  1815–31.

Tellegen, Auke, David T. Lykken, Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., Kimerly J. Wilcox, Nancy L. Segal and Stephen Rich (1988). ‘Personality Similarity in Twins Reared Apart and Together.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (6), 1031-1039

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