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What Is Subjective Well-Being?

September 25, 2017

Group of diverse people smiling.

“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side,” Abraham Maslow wrote in his book Motivation and Personality. “It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, the darker, meaner half.”

“Positive psychology” originated as a term with Maslow in 1954, but it wasn’t until later, in 1998, that it began as a new area of psychology. Martin Seligman reintroduced the term when he chose it as the theme of his presidency at the American Psychological Association. Seligman proclaimed that psychology was “half-baked” and that more attention needed to be paid to the good in people.

“The promise of this new brand of positive psychology was clear,” according to The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. “By using the same techniques and tools that help us explain weakness and prevent or treat illness, we could enhance our understanding of strengths and promote well-being.” This field is particularly concerned with the study of subjective well-being.

Defining Subjective Well-Being

Subjective well-being measures how people think and feel about their life. It has three components.

  1. Cognitive evaluations of a person’s life
  2. Positive affects (a person’s emotions, moods and feelings)
  3. Negative affects

American psychologist Ed Diener is credited with developing subjective well-being. He noted in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology that scientists in this field assume that an essential ingredient to the good life is that people like their lives. An ideal subjective well-being “includes experiencing pleasant emotions, low levels of negative moods, and high life satisfaction,” Diener wrote.

Life Evaluation

The cognitive element refers to life satisfaction in global (life as a whole) and in domain (in specific areas of life, such as work or relationships) terms.

This component of subjective well-being can be a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it. Assessments are the result of a judgment by the individual rather than the description of an emotional state, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Making an evaluation involves individuals constructing some sort of “standard” they perceive as appropriate for themselves, and then comparing circumstances of their life to that standard. Life evaluations are based on how people remember their experiences and can differ significantly from how they actually experienced circumstances at the time. One example of this in action is the “peak-end rule,” which states that a person’s evaluation of an event is based largely on the most intense (peak) emotion experienced during the event and by the last (end) emotion experienced, rather than the average of emotional experiences over time.


Positive affects include joy and pride, while negative affects include pain, anger and worry. Positive affect and negative affect describe the two hedonistic dimensions measured in subjective well-being.

Positive affect is thought to be largely uni-dimensional, which means that positive emotions are strongly correlated with each other and therefore can be represented on a single axis of measurement. However, negative affect may be more multi-dimensional; a person at one given moment may feel anger but not fear or sadness.

Measuring affect presents different challenges to measuring life evaluation. Recalling affective states in the past is difficult because responses will be influenced by recall biases like the peak-end rule, according to the OECD.


A Biblical Approach to Subjective Well-Being

Christians’ subjective well-being is impacted by their relationship with Christ. Research demonstrates higher levels of subjective well-being for Christians and members of nontraditional groups, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have strong religious faith and derive a sense of meaning from their faith, according to the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and the Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

But what is “happiness?” Stephen Plant, a Christian theologian who teaches at the University of Cambridge, asked if there is a distinctively Christian answer to this question that might lead Christians to think differently about well-being. One way to do this is by looking at the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11 to understand what Jesus meant by “blessedness/happiness.”

“What is distinctive in Jesus’ teaching about blessedness/happiness is that it situates a blessed state in the joy individuals and communities find by sharing in the salvation of the kingdom of God,” according to Plant. “Jesus’ interest is not practical wisdom but eschatological proclamation. Secular goods are, Jesus teaches, subsidiary to the ultimate end or goal of human life — the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God turns all human accounts of blessedness/happiness upside down. The blessed mourn, they are meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart; they make peace and are persecuted and falsely accused.”

These and other insights from Scripture are relevant for Christians who make life evaluations and analyze positive and negative affect. Concepts like happiness, peace and joy are rooted in God. Christians will approach subjective well-being from a unique and biblical angle.

Measuring Subjective Well-Being

A number of happiness, affect and life satisfaction measures are available.

The Validity of Self-Report Measurements

“A major concern of researchers in the field is whether self-report instruments are valid,” according to Diener. “After all, people might report that they are happy yet not truly experience high subjective well-being.”

Research has found that self-report measures converge with other types of measurement, including expert ratings based on interviews with respondents, experience sampling measures that involve reporting feelings at random moments in everyday life, participants’ memory for events in their life and the reports of family and friends. Diener recommended “a multimethod battery to assess subjective well-being” when possible. Additional assessment devices based on memory, informant reports and experience sampling are likely to supplement the results.

Using multiple methods enables researchers to understand how people construct subjective well-being judgments. Respondents seem to use currently salient information to construct life satisfaction judgments. Studies show that certain information is chronically salient to some individuals but not to others; any single piece of information may or may not be used to construct life satisfaction judgments. One example is how people in individualistic nations base judgments on the extent to which they feel high self-esteem, but people in collectivistic cultures base their judgments on the opinions of other people.

Life satisfaction reflects different information for different people. This can change depending on what is salient at the moment.

Sample Measure: The Satisfaction With Life Scale

An example of a common measure is Diener’s Satisfaction with Life Scale. This measure asks respondents to answer five statements with a number between one and seven, using the scale below.

  • 7: Strongly agree
  • 6: Agree
  • 5: Slightly agree
  • 4: Neither agree nor disagree
  • 3: Slightly disagree
  • 2: Disagree
  • 1: Strongly disagree

Here are the statements.

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal
  • The conditions of my life are excellent
  • I am satisfied with my life
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing

Here is the scoring and interpretation of the scale.

  • 5-9: Extremely dissatisfied with your life
  • 10-14: Very dissatisfied with your life
  • 15-19: Slightly dissatisfied with your life
  • 20: About neutral
  • 21-25: Somewhat satisfied with your life
  • 26-30: Very satisfied with your life
  • 31-35: Extremely satisfied with your life

Most Americans score in the 21 to 25 range, according to Diener.

Pursuing a Career in Counseling

Grace College’s online master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling prepares graduates for work in counseling environments. This faith-based program analyzes major mental health theories and strategies through a biblical lens. The curriculum helps teach students how to apply Scriptural truth and principles in practice.

A majority of coursework takes place in a fully online format. Students attend an annual seven- to 10-day residency on campus in scenic Winona Lake, Indiana. The program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).