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Defining and Measuring Subjective Well-Being (SWB)

November 11, 2019 by John Andrew Williams

In 1984, Ed Diener published his broadly referenced review of subjective well-being (SWB) as a theory and measure of human happiness. “Happiness”, he admits, is a fuzzy term. We use it in everyday life in many contexts, so Diener breaks it down into a theoretical construct with two distinct pieces: satisfaction with life and positive affect (meaning emotions and outlook). Satisfaction with life is a general concept that often describes someone’s perspective over long time-frames, while positive affect applies more to their perspective of the day to day. However, you would expect that they are related – that someone who feels satisfied with their life probably experiences more positive emotions in their everyday existence than negative emotions. Diener brought these concepts together under a framework to guide scientific measurement. The framework is called subjective well-being (SWB).


  • Ed Diener conducted a review of all literature up to 1984 that dealt with human happiness. This includes theories of happiness and research on happiness. His goal was to provide a comprehensive review of everything that had been done up to that point that addressed what happiness actually is from a scientific perspective. In the review, he identifies a critical discord in the happiness literature – studies on happiness weren’t operating under a single unifying theoretical framework that had been empirically tested. So, he proposed one.
  • Diener proposes subjective well-being as a unifying theory on happiness. Subjective well-being brings together the concepts of life satisfaction, positive feelings, and few negative feelings as three distinct but related types of happiness. It’s subjective, from the distinct perspective of an individual, rather than objective. It addresses positive factors, as well as the absence of negative ones. It evaluates the whole person, not just individual domains like work success or relationships. Subjective well-being assesses the sum-total of a person’s judgement on his or her own life experience.
      Life satisfaction occurs when people feel that they are achieving what they want in their life, based on however they define what a good life looks like.Positive feelings are positive moods and emotions on a daily basis. Love, joy, excitement, and hope are examples of positive feelings.Low negative feelings means people are able to manage any negative emotions on a low level. Depression, worry, anger, and jealousy are examples of negative feelings.
  • Diener’s theory of subjective well-being has since been used to develop, test, and refine several widely-used tools to measure well-being. The Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) measures peoples’ evaluations of their life (Diener et al. 1985). The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE) measures peoples’ experiences with positive and negative feelings (Diener, et al. 2009). The Flourishing Scale measures peoples’ evaluations  of their status with several well-being indicators like optimism, purpose, self-esteem, and relationships (Diener, et al. 2009). These three scales have become widely-used, well-tested, critically important measurements for well-being, and can be accessed on the Illinois EDU website.


A) There is no single “key” to happiness. Diener’s theory of SWB highlights that there are multiple types of happiness and they result from different causes in a person’s life. Some of them come from within us – what is our temperament and our personality? Our outlook on life? Are we resilient to adverse situations? Other causes of happiness are more external – do we have a sense of community and close friends? Do we have what we need to support ourselves and our dependents? Do we live in a society that we feel good about? Does our work fulfill a larger sense of purpose or duty? These causes are complex, they interact with each other, and they are unique to every person. B) Happiness is a process, not a trait. It isn’t static. Both internal and external forces drive happiness, and many of those forces are subject to change. This can be either terrifying or freeing, depending on how you look at it. When things are going well, sometimes we can experience fear that something will change to degrade our happiness. This is possible, because happiness is a process. But, if we are aware of all the pieces that affect it, we can understand where our vulnerabilities may lie. On the other hand, we have the power to change our happiness precisely because its causes are not static. This is where freedom comes in – it could be as simple a shift in perspective and outlook, or as complex as changing career paths. As coaches, our curiosity about the causes of our client’s happiness can help us guide them to make positive changes in their lives. How

  • In 1984, Diener undertook a literature review of theoretical and empirical work on happiness up to that point. He first evaluates some of the primary studies that attempted to test causes of happiness. The influences of income, age, gender, race, employment, education, religion, and marriage and family on SWB were well-researched up to this point. The reviewed research suggests that income, employment, and marriage and family were the strongest predictors of SWB of these external influences.
  • Diener evaluates research on possible internal causes of SWB, including social contact, love, life events and activities, personality traits like extraversion and self-esteem, and health. Social contact has been well-researched as an influencer on SWB with a strong positive correlation. However, the specific mechanisms for social contact increasing SWB weren’t well-understood to this point. Love, on the other hand, had shown strong predictive power for subjective well-being. Certain activities and personality types (high self-esteem), and perceived health were high predictors as well. 
  • Diener reviews several theories that attempt to explain the causes of happiness. 
  • Activity theories, like flow, define happiness as a result of human activity. The focus of research in activity theories is understanding how activities affect the psyche. 
  • Other theories debate whether happiness is formed from the top-down, or the bottom-up. Top-down theory understands happiness as the result of broad personality outlooks and general positive attitudes about life. Bottom-up theories understand happiness as the sum accumulation of small momentary pleasures and positive events. In reality, the two are probably closely related and influence one another. 
  • Associationistic theories try to delineate how and why people form personalities that are predisposed to happiness. These theories explore how our associations with memory, experience conditioning, and cognitive processes impact our perspectives on our own lives. Some of these theories address the role of habit in cognitive processing. They hypothesize that some people actually have developed the habit of reacting positively and have cultivated a positive outlook on their life through these habits. Psychologists have called this the “Pollyanna approach to life,” (Diener 1984, p. 566, Matlin and Stang 1978). Our more modern popular culture might call them the glass half-full people. 
  • Judgment theories explore how people may compare themselves or life situations to some arbitrary standard. These theories hypothesize that happiness comes when someone judges that their reality is higher than the standard. Judgement theories differ based on what the assumed standard is. For example, social comparison theory assumes people use other people as their standard for self-judgement. Adaptation theory, on the other hand, assumes that one’s own past is the standard. Other theories recognize less concrete standards, like who you believe your parents want you to be. 
  • Diener ends his 1984 review with a call for integration and empirical work to propose a unified, elegant theory of happiness. The theories and research studies up to that point had developed parallel to one another and were disjointed. 
  • Diener proposes a theory of SWB that integrates three types of happiness: life satisfaction, positive emotion, and low negative emotions. He and others continued developing the theory of subjective well-being throughout the next decades by refining measurement tools with data. 


Diener, E. Happiness: The Science of Subjective Well-Being. Noba, a project of the Diener Education Fund. Accessed 9/13/2019. Diener, E. 1984. Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin 95 (3): pp. 542–575.

Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., and Griffin, S. 1985. Satisfaction with Life Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment 49: pp. 71-75. Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D., Oishi, S., and Biswas-Diener, R. 2009. New measures of well-being: Flourishing and positive and negative feelings. Social Indicators Research 39: pp. 247-266. http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~ediener/Documents/Diener_1984.pdf

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