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What is subjective well-being?

Life satisfaction—or subjective wellbeing—affects many areas of our lives. Take the time to consider your overall happiness, and what you can do to improve it.

subjective wellbeing

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What is subjective wellbeing?

Why is subjective wellbeing important?

What are the causes of subjective wellbeing?

How do we measure subjective wellbeing?

What are some tips to be happier?

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How happy are you? How satisfied are you with your life? 

Most of us want to be happy—or happier. But have you tried defining what happiness really means to you? Or have you tried talking to someone about it? It is not a straightforward answer and you may need to pause to think about it. 

Happiness and life satisfaction are concepts that mean something different to each and every one of us. It’s subjective; based on your personal feelings. The scientific term to describe this is subjective wellbeing.

What is subjective wellbeing?

Professor Ed Diener, one of the world’s foremost subjective wellbeing researchers, defines it as “people’s cognitive and affective evaluations of their lives.” In layman’s terms, subjective wellbeing means thinking and feeling that your life is going very well.

What makes us think or believe that our life is going well?
How satisfied are you with your life, generally speaking, and about specific areas of your life, such as your work or your health?

This can feel like a super charged reflection to go through on your own. Try using a visual tool, such as the Wheel of Life tool, to help you think about and score your satisfaction on the different areas of life. Does it look balanced? Are there obvious high points and low points, or are you relatively satisfied in most aspects of your life? In parallel, without overthinking it, what would you say about your overall life satisfaction at this point in time, on a scale from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (it couldn’t get any better)? Does this overall rating fit with what you see on the wheel?

What makes us feel that our life is going well?
Are the feelings and emotions we experience pleasant (i.e. positive) or unpleasant (i.e. negative)? For example, joy is a positive emotion, while anger and guilt are negative ones.

Why is subjective wellbeing important?

Subjective wellbeing influences subjects such as physical health and mental health, not only at the individual level but through our relationships. The cumulative effect on the physical and mental health of individuals rolls up to have a significant impact for groups and organizations and communities as well.

Physical health and subjective wellbeing

Subjective wellbeing can have a direct impact on our physical health. Here are the most ground-breaking outcomes from studies:

  • Subjective wellbeing can protect against developing illnesses. Individuals with a more negative emotional style tend to have a poorer immune system and may be at more risk of illness than those with a positive emotional style.1 In addition, a tendency to experience positive emotions is associated with greater resistance to developing the common cold.2
  • Subjective wellbeing aids wound healing. Stress—the opposite proxy for wellbeing—can lead to slower wound healing. For example, wound healing can take 24 percent longer in those who are exposed to stress.3
  • Subjective wellbeing can undo the effects of negative emotions on health. Negative emotions generate increased cardiovascular activity, and positive emotions can undo harmful physiological effects by speeding physiological recovery to desirable levels.4

Mental health and subjective wellbeing

Mental health and subjective wellbeing are interlinked. Happy people report lower levels of mental health conditions, and individuals with low levels of mental health conditions report feeling happier.

Subjective wellbeing also influences the wellbeing, happiness, and mental health of others. Happiness can spread through social networks: people with happy social contacts are more likely to be happy themselves.5 Researchers theorize that the spread of happiness in social networks may be due to emotional contagion. In effect, people catch emotional states from those near to them, either emotionally or physically close. 

Quality of life and subjective wellbeing

Subjective wellbeing is also important in the context of our quality of life. The way we perceive our emotional wellbeing and experiences directly impacts our quality of life. For example, individuals who feel satisfied with their lives, and who frequently experience positive feelings such as joy, contentment, hope, are more inclined to be seen as enjoying a high quality of life.

What are the causes of subjective wellbeing?

Diener and other researchers have identified several internal and external factors in people’s happiness.

Internal causes include:

  • Inborn temperament and personality: Our genes and learned behaviors have an impact on our happiness. For example, you can inherit a trait like self-confidence, or you can rewire your brain to become more confident. This can help you experience the world around you in a more positive way, leading to higher subjective wellbeing.
  • Outlook on life: Some people have a tendency to interpret things either positively or negatively. And, as we know, those with more positive thoughts and emotions experience higher subjective wellbeing. 
  • Adaptation and resilience: Things around us change all the time. Life events can influence an individual’s subjective wellbeing, driving an improvement or deterioration. Resilience and adaptation to these changes is a crucial component of subjective wellness, allowing individuals to return to their baseline levels of happiness.

External causes include:

  • Material resources: Research shows that we need enough income to meet our basic needs, like food and housing. 6 Beyond meeting those needs, however, a higher amount of money does not increase happiness further.
  • Social resources: A trusted and supportive network of friends, loved ones, and family is necessary for subjective wellness, though the amount of social contact needed to feel supported may vary.
  • The circumstances in which you live: The society in which we live influences our happiness. Living in a society of war and hunger lowers levels of happiness, while living in an economically developed society, in peacetime, with good social resources and healthcare, increases levels of happiness. Similarly, a workplace that fosters belonging and inclusion will be associated with higher levels of happiness, while a toxic work environment will be associated with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

How do we measure subjective wellbeing?

Subjective wellbeing is often measured by self-report assessments of three types of happiness. Each is independent and should be measured separately. should be measured separately.

What are the types of happiness?

There are three main types of happiness:

  1. High life satisfaction: High life satisfaction is when we think our life is great. For example, when we are in a great romantic relationship, we often feel more contentment from our family and friendships, and we love our work. Possible causes of this happiness include nurtured relationships, deep connections, and a job that we love and pays well.
  2. Frequent positive feelings: Frequent positive feelings happen when we enjoy life. For example, when we are able to see the little things and draw contentment and other positive feelings out of them. Possible causes of this happiness include supportive friends and family, a regular mindfulness practice, or a mindful approach to life.
  3. Infrequent negative feelings: Infrequent negative feelings happen when you have very few concerns or worries and you rarely feel unpleasant emotions, such as anger. Possible causes to this happiness may include an alignment with your values and goals, and low neuroticism.

As you can see, there is not one single cause to happiness. Some people may experience the three types of happiness outlined above, some only one. For example, someone may enjoy life a lot, but also be prone to anxiety and stress. 

Measuring subjective wellbeing

The table below shows the different methods, scales, and questionnaires that are commonly used to measure each of the 3 components of subjective wellbeing:

Life satisfaction Positive feelings Negative feelings
Self-report assessment The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWL) questionnaire The Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) questionnaire
The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (OHQ) The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE)
Experience Sampling Method (ESM) A random-interval written recording (often in a journal) of the respondent’s mood, feelings, emotions, and satisfaction over a period of time.
Other methods
  • Brain activity measures
  • An individual’s physical functioning, such as cortisol levels


Like with any self-reported measures, there are concerns over the accuracy of the results given the number of factors that could influence us as we go through the questionnaire. For example, the environment we are in, our understanding of the scoring system or of the language used, or our mood when we take the questionnaire.

What are some tips to be happier?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to be happier, as everyone may have different needs—but here are some common things others do to feel happier:

Clarify your core values

A Core Values Clarification exercise can help you clarify the things you hold most meaningful and important. Once we get clear on our values, we get clear on what is in alignment—or not—in our lives. The more aligned we are to our core values, the more it positively influences our happiness. 

Broaden and build on your positive emotions

The Broaden-and-Build Theory shows that positive emotions expand our awareness and encourage us to think and behave in newer, more varied ways. Here’s how you can use it to be happier:

  1. At the end of a day, write down on a piece of paper all the positive emotions you felt. For example, joy, excitement, or appreciation.
  2. Which of these positive emotions do you feel often? Are there situations that prompt them?
  3. Which positive emotions do you not feel often, but would like to feel more? What situations could prompt them? Brainstorm realistic ways for you to feel these positive emotions more often.

Perform random acts of kindness

Research shows that the happiest people are often those who help others. Random acts of kindness make the receiver happy, and it makes you happy too! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Buy a coffee for the person in line behind you at the coffee shop
  • Send a heartfelt thank you note to a coworker
  • Compliment someone
  • Surprise your friends—get their favorite food delivered

There are many different ways to perform random acts of kindness. Find what works best for you.

Positive affirmations

Using positive affirmations daily is a simple yet powerful way to bring happiness into your life. Much of what makes us feel low stems from the negative chatter that runs through our mind daily. Positive affirmations shut down this chatter and give us a happiness boost. Over time and with repetition, your go-to thoughts will become more positive. Here’s how:

  1. Write down a few positive affirmations. They must be written in the present tense and in the first person, with active words. For example, I am confident.
  2. Set an intention to practice for 21 days.
  3. Every morning, read your positive affirmations in front of a mirror, or you can read them out loud from sticky notes you’ve placed around your house.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a quiet yet powerful technique that not only allows you to be more present in the moment, but also allows you to see negative thoughts as just that: thoughts. A regular mindfulness practice allows you to find anchors, such as the breath, to bring you back to a mindful state. Over time and with practice, this can come in handy for stressful situations. Here is an audio track, to get you started.

Have fun

Do not underestimate the value of fun. And for the high achievers out there, know that having fun is time well spent. Sure, there are plenty of other things you could be doing, but spending time talking with a friend or doing a hobby has been shown to boost happiness.

Exercise

Many studies show that when you engage in a physical activity, the happy hormones called endorphins are released. Exercise can take many forms, from a walk or a round of golf, to high-intensity interval training or kickboxing. Do what works best for you.

Learn to forgive

Anger, rage, and resentment can be consuming. They are strong emotions that can take over the body, physically and emotionally. It is natural to feel irritated and angry from time to time, but the irony is that if we hold on to anger, it will create more damage to us than the situation or person we are angry with. 

The antidote to deeply felt anger is forgiveness: the decision to let go of feelings and resentment. You chose to forgive someone who has hurt you, though you may not condone what they have done. The deeper the anger and resentment are, the more you may need to repeat the process of forgiveness to cope with the negative memories and feelings.

Challenge your anger by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I hanging on to my anger? What value is it to me?
  • How has the situation or person affected me, and have I become a victim of my anger because it has become part of who I am? 
  • What would happen if I exchange my anger for forgiveness? How would I feel within myself?
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Final thoughts on subjective wellbeing

Our life satisfaction—or subjective wellbeing—is an important aspect of overall health and wellness. Take the time to consider your overall happiness, and what you can do to improve it. This may be a lot of little things, from positive affirmations and random acts of kindness, to bigger things, like picking up a new hobby or reconsidering your career trajectory. There’s no right or wrong approach to happiness, so do what works for you. Remember, happiness is subjective.

 1 Barak (2006). The immune system and happiness.
Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper & Skoner (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold.
Kiecolt-Glaser, Marucha, Malarkey, Mercado & Glaser (1995). Slowing of wound healing by psychological stress.
De Neve, Diener, Tay & Xuereb (2013). The objective benefits of Subjective Wellbeing.
Fowler & Christakis (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.
Diener & Seligman, 2004. Beyond Money: Toward an economy of well-being.