Subjective wellbeing

By Synesthesiac · Jul 7, 2010 ·
  1. Synesthesiac


    Few people have ever doubted that happiness is very important. In fact, starting at least with the Ancient Greeks, the concept has been subject of unremitting debate. Surely this would not have been the case if people generally felt it did not matter.[1]

    Since happiness has captured, and continues to capture, the interest of so many people, it should not come as a surprise that philosophers and many others debating the concept have long yearned for a way to measure it.

    The breakthrough came in the 1950s. Psychologists – until then mainly interested in negative emotional states such as depression and anxiety – became interested in positive emotions and feelings , of well-being. Within the discipline a consensus grew that self-reports on how well life is going, can convey important information on underlying emotional states, and so the field pushed ahead with measuring what is best referred to as subjective well-being (commonly abbreviated as SWB). SWB, we should immediately note, is not the same as happiness although the terms are often used synonymously.

    SWB, in fact, is ‘a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgements of life satisfaction’ (Diener et al., 1999: p. 277). Specifically, reported SWB consists of two distinctive components (cf. Diener, 1994: p. 106): an affective part, which refers to both the presence of positive affect (PA) and the absence of negative affect (NA), and a cognitive part.

    The affective part is a hedonic evaluation guided by emotions and feelings, while the cognitive part is an information-based appraisal of one’s life for which people judge the extent to which their life so far measures up to their expectations and resembles their envisioned ‘ideal’ life.



    Surveys show that social sciences have taken huge steps in their understanding of the factors underlying differences in SWB ratings (e.g. Diener et al., 1999) This section briefly discusses some of the uncovered correlates and determinants of SWB, classifying them in six broad groups;

    (i) personality factors;

    (ii) contextual and situational factors;
    (iii) demographic factors;
    (iv) institutional factors;
    (v) environmental factors; and
    (vi) economic factors.[8]

    reliable measures for the individual, by the famous principle which I have sometimes called “Katona’s Law”, that the summation of ignorance produces knowledge, we may find an operation or instrument with self-cancelling random factors which will give us a much better measure for a hundred or a thousand individuals than we can get for one.’ This view on cultural and linguistic factors as a source of bias in cross-country comparisons, is not meant to deny that the role of these factors in reported SWB itself is interesting and worthy of attention.

    5 For example, using positron emission tomography (PET scans) of regional cerebral blood flow, Lane et al. (1997) found, amongst others, that pleasant and unpleasant emotions differed from neutral ones by statistically highly significant elevated blood flow in the vicinity of the medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus and midbrain. Levesque et al. (2003) applied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that sad feelings were associated with significant bilateral activations of the midbrain, the medial prefrontal cortex, the anterior temporal pole and the right ventrolateral prefrontal.

    Ryff et al. (2004) present some preliminary findings showing that people with higher SWB (specifically more meaning, purposeful engagement et cetera in their lives) have lower levels of daily salivary cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines. In addition, for them the duration of REM sleep is longer than for those with lower levels of reported SWB. Finally, Steptoe et al. (2005) find that positive affect is associated with reduced neuroendocrine, inflammatory and cardiovascular activity. Positive affect was also inversely related to cortisol output during the day (controlling for other factors such as age and gender) and heart rate.

    During mental stress testing in the laboratory people with higher positive affect had smaller plasma fibrinogen stress responses. This paragraph draws heavily on Castriota (forthcoming). See also Diener et al. (1995), Diener and Seligman (2004), Frey and Stutzer (2002), Lyubomirsky et al. (2005), Nettle (2005) and Layard (2005), amongst others. Earlier accounts of the state of affairs in SWB research are provided by Fellows (1966), Veenhoven (1984) and Wilson (1967).

    4.1 Towards a comprehensive picture of well-being

    Frameworks designed to give a comprehensive account of how well a nation and its citizens are doing generally discern three key areas. Measures of economic performance are complemented with indicators on important social and environmental issues. For example, the
    Belgian Federal Planning Bureau (2005) in its insightful TransGovern model regards society’s access to human, environmental and economic resources as determining the evolution of well-being. Correspondingly, it discerns three basic capitals of development:

    1. Human capital: comprising the standard of living (material well-being), health (both
    mental and physical) and knowledge/capacities (what individuals know and are able
    to do);

    2. Environmental capital: including both natural resources (water, air, land and
    mineral resources) and the biosphere with all its biological diversity;

    3. Economic capital: subdivided in physical and technological capital (equipments,
    buildings, infrastructure, and intangible assets including software and technology
    patents) and net financial assets.

    Typically, well-being frameworks such as this one include only objective indicators; whether it be GDP or related measures of economic activity, water quality or telephone connections, illiteracy rates or patent applications, suicide numbers or victimisation rates, traffic accidents or life expectancy, there is no doubt that from these indicators much can be learned about the quality of life. At the same time, there is growing recognition that, though insightful, there is more to well-being than these measures are able to capture.[9] For further evidence on the importance of both relative and absolute income see, amongst others, Clark and Oswald (1996), Diener et al. (1995), Easterlin (1995) and McBride (2001).[10]

    So the ideal neural patterns and neurochemicals to create hapiness and mainly SWB are down to, personality factors; contextual and situational factors; demographic factors; institutional factors; environmental factors; and economic factors.

    I note that at least three of these factors that you can subjectively change on the spot, for example by imagining you are in a different location or country the demographic and environmental scores changed. I suppose you unconsiously set the chemicals for the reactions that lead to the set of events in place pre-determinately. Right? Meditiation or sleep would be a different form of control than waking conscious.

    Wonder what they will prescribe for someone low in subjective wellbeing?

    (PS I should not be allowed blog, I waffffflllleeeeeeeee a lot:p)

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