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Subjective Well-Being

What is Subjective Well-Being?

Subjective well-being (SWB) is defined as people’s positive evaluations of their lives, including pleasant emotions, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.

Psychological empowerment Opens in new window—people’s belief that they have the resources, energy, and competence to accomplish important goals—represents one facet of SWB.

The study of subjective well-being (for example, happiness and life satisfaction) sheds considerable light on psychological empowerment Opens in new window.

  1. First, internal empowerment is one facet of subjective well-being, because people’s feelings of well-being are inherently tied to their beliefs about whether they can achieve their goals.
  2. Second, certain types of SWB, such as positive emotions (for example, joy and love), heighten people’s feelings of empowerment.
  3. Finally, concepts related to subjective well-being and its measurement give us insights into defining and measuring empowerment.

The Importance of Subjective Wellbeing

Subjective well-being is one important variable by which the quality of life in societies can be measured—the fact that people in the society find their lives to be fulfilling and happy.

This is a robust literature in which we have taken time to review some of the causes of facets of subjective well-being, as well as their consequences, including feelings of empowerment. We also describe some cultural variations in SWB and differences between societies in what causes SWB.

Subjective well-being is necessary for quality of life, but is not sufficient for it. It is difficult to imagine a life, no matter how positive in objective respects, that we would label as ideal if the individual living that life were dissatisfied and depressed Opens in new window.

Therefore, SWB is necessary for us to consider a life an ideal one. SWB, however, is not sufficient for a full life because we would consider a happy person’s life incomplete if s/he were not free, or were missing other basic qualities that we consider necessary for dignity.

Robert Nozick’s (1974) example of a hypothetical “experience machine” Opens in new window that can make people happy, even though they are only imagining happy experiences, is instructive here. The fact that most people do not want to be happy based on artificial experiences indicates clearly that most people do not simply want SWB—they want happiness coming from valuable experiences.

However, just as SWB is not sufficient by itself for a good life, neither are economic or social indicators by themselves sufficient to indicate the well-being of a society.

We want people to feel happy and fulfilled, not just live in a benign environment. If people consistently felt depressed in a healthy and wealthy society, it would not be a desirable place.

Thus, SWB is a complement to objective indicators in assessing the quality of life in a society. In addition, knowledge of SWB is important to economists and policy makers because people’s choices are dependent on their feelings of well-being and their predictions about what will enhance their SWB.

Research suggests that the experience of positive emotions leads to a syndrome of related behavioral characteristics: sociability, feelings of self-confidence and energy, engaged activity, altruism Opens in new window, creativity Opens in new window, and perhaps better immune functioning and cardiovascular fitness.

Because there are longitudinal and formal experimental studies on the effects of positive emotions, we know that these emotions often cause the listed attributes and are not simply a result of them. It should be noted that several of the characteristics associated with positive emotions sound similar to empowerment in that the happy individual is self-confident and likely to pursue goals in an active way.

Chronically happy people exhibit the above characteristics, and individuals who are in a temporary positive mood also exhibit the characteristics listed above. It is not surprising, then, that happy people are more successful in a number of life domains:

  • they have more friends,
  • are more likely to get married and stay happily married,
  • make more money on average,
  • are more likely to receive superior ratings from their supervisors at work,
  • are more likely to be involved in community and volunteer activities, and
  • are more likely to fill leadership roles. They also may live longer.

It should be mentioned, however, that virtually all of the research findings are from Western nations, especially the United States, and therefore we do not know the degree to which happy people are more successful in other cultures. Furthermore, it might be that mildly dysphoric individuals are better at certain types of jobs, for example, those requiring constant vigilance.

Thus, it appears that happy people are in many ways more successful than unhappy people, but we do not know the limiting condition on this conclusion. A caveat is that most of the research on the benefits of SWB has been conducted in Westernized and industrial nations.

Measuring Subjective Wellbeing

Over the past decade substantial advances have been made in measuring SWB. Simple self-report survey instruments have been the mainstay of the field since its inception. Respondents are asked questions such as “How happy are you?” “How frequently do you feel happy?” and “How satisfied are you with your life?”

Respondents typically provide their responses in terms of a numerical scale value.

Theoretical model in the literature indicates that there are four stages in well-being:

  1. environmental circumstances and events to which the person reacts;
  2. the person’s immediate reactions to these events, such as feelings of joy or sadness;
  3. a person’s recall of her or his reactions; and
  4. a person’s global constructed judgments of his or her life, such as life satisfaction.

Each of these stages differs from the one before, and is translated from the stage before it through processes that are increasingly understood. Because of the intervening psychological processes occurring between stages, people’s circumstances and their life satisfaction are only modestly correlated.

In the transition from life circumstances to people’s immediate reactions to these circumstances, appraisals, goals, temperament, and attention al moderate the influence of circumstances on a person’s reactions. For example, a person with a phlegmatic temperament Opens in new window who has few materialistic goals is less likely to be upset by a personal loss in the stock market than a person with a reactive temperament who believes that money is the key to happiness.

Moving from ongoing reactions to people’s memories of them, we also have a set of factors that can moderate the relation by changing people’s recall. For example, people tend to recall feelings that are in line with expectations and situational norms, and they tend to forget feelings that are incongruent with self-beliefs.

Finally, when people make global constructions of their well-being (for example, being satisfied with life), there are discrepancies with the recall of emotions because people use different standards in computing their satisfaction and base their global judgments of well-being on information in addition to the recall of their emotional reactions.

Causes of Subjective Wellbeing

We know through studies of the SWB of twins, and other methodologies, that about half of the variance in SWB is due to genes Opens in new window, to a person’s inheritance.

Identical (monozygotic) twins who are reared apart are more similar to each other in SWB than are fraternal (dizygotic) twins who are reared together.

This indicates that there are genetic influences on how happy people are. However, we also know that conditions can, and do, influence SWB. For example, wives typically show dramatic drops in life satisfactions when their husbands die, and only very slowly, over a period of five years on average, do they climb back toward their former baselines of life satisfaction.

Similarly, most people show a dramatic drop in SWB when they lose their jobs, and they do not completely return to their former levels of SWB even after they obtain new jobs, results that hold after controlling for income. When people partially lose control of their lives, as in widowhood or unemployment, it is likely that their feelings of empowerment also will drop.

Two personality traits in particular have been implicated in happiness. On the positive side, extraverts tend to show more upbeat emotions. They are happier on average even when they are alone, and across all of the days of the week.

Extraverts seem to have a predisposition to experience more pleasant emotions, although the specific reason for this is not fully understood. In contrast, neurotic individuals are prone to worry, sadness, and anger. The neurotic individual seems to be more reactive to negative events.

Extraversion and neuroticism are two separate traits, and therefore there are:

  • extraverted neurotics (high levels of both positive and negative emotions),
  • introverted neurotics (low pleasant emotions and high negative emotions),
  • introverted nonneurotics (low on both types of affect), and
  • extraverted nonneurotics (high pleasant emotions and low negative emotions).

Individuals with these different types of temperaments are likely to exhibit different behaviors, including in the workplace, and different feelings of empowerment as well.

Research findings suggest that social relationships are important to happiness, probably even necessary for it. In a group of very happy people we studied, every single individual had high-quality social relationships. This does not mean that all of their social relationships were of high quality, of course.

In this case, the very happy people experienced high-quality social relationships in at least two out of three areas—friends, family, and romantic partner. On the other hand, some unhappy individuals also had good social relationships. Thus, relationships are necessary for happiness, but not sufficient by themselves.

Another cause of high SWB is making progress toward one’s personal goals. People have different values and goals, so the type of success that makes them happy can be idiosyncratic, dependent on their aims.

When we studied the types of resources that are most related to SWB, we found that personal attributes such as self-confidence were very important. Perhaps self-confidence was a good prediction of life satisfaction because it is a helpful resource for such a wide variety of goals.

It appears that individuals who feel self-confident, and are thus psychologically empowered Opens in new window, are more likely to make progress toward their personal goals and are more likely to be happy.

In order to be empowered, people need to posses the resources to reach their goals, and they also need to have the psychological mind-set that they can and will reach the goals.

Thus, objective resources, feelings of self-efficacy Opens in new window, and positive emotions all work together to create empowerment.

The effects of income on happiness have studied in some detail (Diener and Biswas-Diener, 2002). In wealthy nations there are small, but positive, correlations between income and reports of happiness. For instance, more poor people than wealthy people report dissatisfaction with life.

These findings have been replicated hundreds of times; and are usually interpreted to mean that increases in income make more difference to SWB at poverty levels than they do in higher income strata. Diener and Biswas-Diener (2002) and Frey and Stutzer (2002) provide a full discussion of the relation between money and SWB.

When we examine the mean levels of happiness of different nations and plot these figures against per capita income, there is often a curvilinear relationship such that the rise in SWB is steep in the lower income ranges and becomes very gradual in higher income ranges. Wealthy nations show higher SWB on average than do poorer ones, but wealthy nations are more likely to have more equality, greater longevity, and other desirable characteristics beyond material abundance.

One explanations for the pattern of SWB findings across nations is that income matters only at those levels where increases make a difference in whether people can meet basic needs such as food, shelter, and health.

An alternative explanation for the fact that poor nations show low average levels of SWB is that people in poor nations have a large number of desires that they cannot fulfill, especially because they see the goods and services that people consume in wealthy nations.

An explanation that brings together the idea of basic needs with the concept of unfulfilled desires is that needs drive desires and do so in a compelling way for most people, but other factors such as social comparison can also influence desires.

It is the extent to which people can meet their desires, in turn, that directly influences SWB. Thus, needs might have strong influences on SWB because evolution has built humans so that biological needs affect their desires.

Cultural Influences on Subjective Wellbeing

Latin Americans on average report higher levels of SWB than do East Asians (Dietner, Oishi, and Lucas 2003). It appears that Latin Americans are more “approach oriented,” focusing on desirable goals, whereas East Asians are more “avoidance oriented,” focusing on preventing bad outcomes.

In addition, Latin Americans believe that positive emotions are very desirable, whereas East Asians believe that positive emotions and negative emotions are almost equally appropriate.

Thus, Latin American countries often score higher than expected on SWB surveys, relative to the incomes in these nations, and East Asian nations such as Japan and the Republic of Korea often score lower than expected. It should be remembered, however, that culture is dynamic and that these trends therefore might be changing over time.

Cultures can be arrayed on a continuum ranging from individualistic (individual well-being and choice are granted high importance) to collectivistic (the group is seen as more important than the individual). It appears that both cultural orientations have their costs and benefits in terms of SWB.

Individualistic societies offer people greater personal freedom, and on average people in these societies report high SWB. However, these cultures also have higher levels of problems such as divorce and suicide. They have high marital satisfaction rates and, paradoxically, high divorce rates. They experience high average SWB, and yet on average also have higher levels of suicide.

One explanation is that in individualistic societies people receive credit for their successes but also feel the sting of failure more strongly. It might also be that the extended families of collectivistic cultures impair people’s freedom, but also provide a safeguard against loneliness and the acting out of aberrant behaviors. Finally, because the achievement of happiness is a goal in individualistic nations, it might be seen as a personal shortcoming if a person is unhappy.

    The research data for this literature have been adapted from the manual:
  1. Measuring Empowerment: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives By Deepa Narayan-Parker.
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