Subjective well-being

Subjective well-being is perhaps the most important concept in Positive Psychology. Simply put, subjective well-being is defined as your evaluations of a) your own life, and b) your moods and emotions–hence the label “subjective”.1

Subjective well-being is the primary way Positive Psychology researchers have defined and measured people’s happiness and well-being.

In this latest article in our article series on the Science behind Well-being, I’ll talk about the three parts of subjective well-being, how life satisfaction can change, and how you can track your own subjective well-being.

The 3 parts of Subjective Well-Being

Subjective well-being consists of three parts: positive affect, negative affect and life satisfaction.

The first two parts of subjective well-being, positive affect and negative affect, are basically your emotions and moods. Affect reflects the basic and immediate experiences in your life. So, positive emotions and moods, and negative emotions and moods.

The third part of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, is the evaluation of your life as a whole.2 Are you satisfied with your life? How are the conditions of your life? Are you close to your ideal life? Have you gotten the important things you want in life? Would you change things about your life? These are all questions aimed to assess life-satisfaction.

It is important to note that life satisfaction is more than the sum of your emotional well-being over a period of time. For instance, habitually happy individuals can be very satisfied with their overall education even though they feel only moderately satisfied with the specific parts of it, e.g. textbooks or classes.3

This is because the mental process through which people judge life satisfaction is an idiosyncratic process in which information is selectively remembered. The process is also easily swayed by transient factors such as the person’s mood or recent events. Unstable and fickle, how we come up with life satisfaction often isn’t rational.

The Stability and Changes in Life Satisfaction.

Despite the often illogical way life satisfaction is constructed, studies have shown that both life satisfaction and affect remain largely stable through the years.4

A longitudinal study conducted by Michigan State researchers, Lucas and Donnellan, found that 34-38% of the variance in life satisfaction can be explained by stable and inherited personality differences; 29-34% of the variance can be explained by a moderately stable component that changes slowly over the years; and 28-37% of the variance is due to random error and occasion-specific effects–the transient factors we talked about.5

Nonetheless, a significant minority of individuals do experience notable changes in their level of life satisfaction.6 In a longitudinal study conducted over 17 years, researchers found that 24% of the participants’ life satisfaction changed significantly.7

It seems that at least some of life’s events do have lasting effects on subjective well-being. Focusing on negative events, examples include unemployment, widowhood, and long-term disabilities.2 The power of these events stems from the broad changes they cause across many parts of a person’s life.

There are significant individual differences in how fast and how much people adapt to these negative life events. This is partly due to stable individual differences such as people’s personalities.

More actionably, these differences may also come from different coping strategies. Good coping strategies include reinterpreting negative events positively, seeking out social support from friends and family, using humor, and seeking out useful information.6

Measuring your Subjective Well-Being

Tracking your own subjective well-being can be very powerful, if you keep a journal of your life’s events alongside. You can learn about how your life satisfaction and emotions fluctuate with the cycles of life, and about which events affect you, and how they affect you.

Keep it up for some time and you will see trends emerge, and be able to adjust your activities in order to maximize positive affect and life satisfaction, and minimize negative affect.

If you want the highest-quality measures, most researchers use the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) to measure life satisfaction, and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) to measure positive and negative affect. These are no pop psychology quizzes. If you decide to do this weekly, or even daily if you have the time, you could use the more time-consuming scales above.

An interesting alternative, however, is to track your positive and negative affect throughout the day, once every half-an-hour or once every hour, and your life satisfaction at the end of each day. By diving into the details, you’ll get a clearer understanding of which specific activities give you the most emotional well-being.

One way you can do this is to set alarms on your phone to go off at 30 minute intervals. To measure your affect, you can use a simple 0 to 3 scale to the questions, “Are you feeling positive/negative emotions right now?” — 0: not at all; 1: a little; 2: moderately; 3: strongly.

Input a number each for your positive affect and negative affect, and write down a word or sentence describing what you were doing at that time. You can also elaborate on the specific positive or negative emotion you are feeling.

For the purpose of tracking, it is useful to have categories such as “working”, “doing housework”, “socializing”, etc. Make up your own categories to suit the activities of your life, and be as detailed as you need.

At the end of the day, write down your answer to, “How satisfied are you with your life?”, keeping in mind the questions used to describe life satisfaction. Use this scale: 7: Very satisfied; 6: Moderately satisfied; 5: Slightly satisfied; 4: Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; 3: Slightly dissatisfied; 2: Moderately dissatisfied; 1: Very dissatisfied.

Maintain this regime for a few weeks, then take a look at the trends that have emerged. Which activities make you happy; which activities make you unhappy? Which days are you the most satisfied with your life?

And finally, with what you know, what can you change to make your life better?