If you’re a bit confused about the many, many terms being thrown around related to happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, you’re not alone! There are so many ways to talk about this topic in positive psychology that it’s easy to get bogged down in ambiguity.
For laymen and those not involved in positive psychology research, the terms may seem interchangeable. However, there is a difference between these three terms and the constructs they represent.
If you’re interested in finding out exactly how they differ—and why life satisfaction is such an important topic in positive psychology—you’ve come to the right place.
Read on to learn more!
This article contains:
- What is the Meaning of Life Satisfaction?
- Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Life Satisfaction?
- Life Satisfaction Theory and Psychology
- Research and Studies
- Measuring Life Satisfaction
- The Satisfaction with Life Scale (PDF)
- The Life Satisfaction Index Questionnaire
- Measuring Surveys and Inventories
- Life Satisfaction in Old Age
- How to Improve Life Satisfaction
- 14 Quotes on Life Satisfaction
- A Take-Home Message
What is the Meaning of Life Satisfaction?
Life satisfaction is a bit more complex than it seems; the term is sometimes used interchangeably with happiness, but they are indeed two separate concepts. Life satisfaction is the evaluation of one’s life as a whole, not simply one’s current level of happiness.
There are a few different working definitions of life satisfaction, including well-being and life satisfaction researcher Ed Diener’s:
“[A]n overall assessment of feelings and attitudes about one’s life at a particular point in time ranging from negative to positive” (Buetell, 2006).
Another popular definition of life satisfaction comes from another highly regarded life satisfaction scholar, Ruut Beenhoven:
“Life satisfaction is the degree to which a person positively evaluates the overall quality of his/her life as a whole. In other words, how much the person likes the life he/she leads” (1996).
Finally, Ellison and colleagues define life satisfaction as:
“[A] cognitive assessment of an underlying state thought to be relatively consistent and influenced by social factors” (1989).
Although there are small differences between the definitions, the underlying idea is the same: life satisfaction refers to an individual’s overall feelings about his or her life. In other words, life satisfaction is a global evaluation rather than one that is grounded at any specific point in time or in any specific domain.
Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Life Satisfaction?
Although related, happiness and life satisfaction are not the same thing.
Happiness is an immediate, in-the-moment experience; although enjoyable, it is ultimately fleeting. A healthy life certainly includes moments of happiness, but happiness alone usually does not make for a fulfilling and satisfying life.
According to Daniel Gilbert, professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the meaning of happiness is “anything we pleased” (Gilbert, 2009). It is a more transitory construct than life satisfaction, and can be triggered by any of a huge number of events, activities, or thoughts.
Life satisfaction is not only more stable and long-lived than happiness, it is also broader in scope. It is our general feeling about our life and how pleased we are with how it’s going. There are many factors that contribute to life satisfaction from a number of domains, including work, romantic relationships, relationships with family and friends, personal development, health and wellness, and others.
Another difference between happiness and life satisfaction is that the latter is not based on criterion that researchers deem to be important, but instead on your own cognitive judgments of the factors that you consider to be most valuable.
This is also the main difference between well-being and life satisfaction; there are many scales that produce great measures of a person’s well-being, but well-being is generally more strictly defined and based on specific variables.
One of the most popular theories of well-being is the PERMA model developed by Martin Seligman, one of the “founding fathers” of positive psychology (Seligman, 2011). His model is based on the idea that there are five main factors that contribute to well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. This model successfully explains differences in well-being, but it often fails to truly capture life satisfaction because it is more objective and less customizable based on what each individual values.
Life satisfaction measures are generally subjective, or based on the variables that an individual finds personally important in their own life. Your life satisfaction will not be determined based on a factor that you don’t actually find personally meaningful.
You may also hear another term tossed about with life satisfaction and happiness: quality of life. Quality of life is another measure of satisfaction or well-being, but it is associated with living conditions like the amount and quality of food, the state of one’s health, and the quality of one’s shelter (Veenhoven, 1996). Again, the difference between this related variable and life satisfaction is that life satisfaction is subjective and more inherently emotional. Someone who is homeless or terminally ill may well have a higher life satisfaction than a wealthy person in good health, because they may place importance on a very different set of variables than those involved in quality of life.
Life Satisfaction Theory and Psychology
There are two main types of theories about life satisfaction:
- Bottom-up theories: life satisfaction as a result of satisfaction in the many domains of life.
- Top-down theories: life satisfaction as an influencer of domain-specific satisfaction (Heady, Veenhoven, & Wearing, 1991).
Bottom-up theories hold that we experience satisfaction in many domains of life, like work, relationships, family and friends, personal development, and health and fitness. Our satisfaction with our lives in these areas combines to create our overall life satisfaction.
On the other hand, top-down theories state that our overall life satisfaction influences (or even determines) our life satisfaction in the many different domains. This debate is ongoing, but for most people it is enough to know that overall life satisfaction and satisfaction in the multiple domains of life are closely related.
The theories and discussions that are drawing more interest are those about how the mechanism of evaluating one’s life works. How do we decide that we are satisfied with our lives? How do we determine that we are not?
Researcher Jussi Suikkanen’s theory of life satisfaction is an intriguing one: a person is satisfied with her life when “a more informed and rational hypothetical version of her” would judge that her life fulfills her ideal life-plan (2011). This theory avoids one of the main issues that plagues the simpler version of this theory—that a person is happy when she judges that her life fulfills her ideal life-plan.
The reason this simpler version of the theory fails to truly capture life satisfaction is that it could inappropriately indicate life satisfaction in a person who is only temporarily or spontaneously happy but does not make any effort to consider how her life is going (Suikkanen, 2011). There’s certainly nothing wrong with being spontaneously happy, but it takes more than just feeling momentarily happy to have life satisfaction!
Research and Studies
Although the advent of positive psychology around 2000 spiked interest in constructs like happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, these topics have been popular with psychologists for several decades. As such, there is a good body of work in which to base our understanding of life satisfaction.
Perhaps the best place to start in learning about life satisfaction is with Ed Diener and his colleagues.
Ed Diener and his Work on Subjective Well-Being
The name Ed Diener is nearly synonymous with well-being and life satisfaction; as we’ll cover later, Diener’s scale measuring life satisfaction is one of the most commonly used scales in positive psychology.
Since the 1980s, Diener’s work has been leading the way on research into these topics. He even coined the term “subjective well-being,” or SWB, and introduced SWB as a quantifiable aspect of the elusive construct of happiness.
From Diener, we also know that people are generally happy. A groundbreaking study in 1996 found that about one third of people in the United States say they are “very happy” and only one in ten say they are “not too happy” (Diener & Diener). Diener’s future work on average subjective well-being or life satisfaction found that those we often think of as being prime candidates for depression and unhappiness are surprisingly happy—perhaps because of a genetic predisposition towards being happy.
Diener contributed to the idea that happiness is largely determined by genetics when he found that external conditions are unlikely to have a large or lasting impact on a person’s happiness (unless it’s a huge life change, such as becoming completely disabled or otherwise being unable to work, or being unable to engage in a healthy sexual relationship).
Based on Diener’s extensive work in this area, he has identified four “ingredients for a happy life”:
- Psychological wealth is more than money—it is also your attitude, goals, and engagement at work.
- Happiness not only feels good, it is also beneficial to relationships, work, and health.
- It is helpful to set realistic expectations about happiness. No one is completely happy all the time!
- Thinking is an important piece of happiness; boosting our cognition can boost our happiness, if done appropriately (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
That’s helpful in getting a grasp on life satisfaction, but let’s get a little more specific on these ingredients.
Life Satisfaction and its Contributing Factors
The main contributing factors to life satisfaction are not completely understood yet, and the weight they are given by each individual varies; but, research has found that they likely fall into one of four sequential categories:
- Life chances
- Course of events
- Flow of experience
- Evaluation of life (Veenhoven, 1996)
In the life chances category, you will find societal resources like economic welfare, social equality, political freedom, culture, and moral order; personal resources like social position, material property, political influence, social prestige, and family bonds; and individual abilities like physical fitness, psychic fortitude, social capability, and intellectual skill.
In the course of events category, the events can involve factors like need or affluence, attack or protection, solitude or company, humiliation or honor, routine or challenge, and ugliness or beauty. These are the things that can confront us as we go through our daily life, causing us to lean more in one direction or the other: towards greater satisfaction or greater dissatisfaction.
The flow of experience category includes experiences like yearning or satiation, anxiety or safety, loneliness or love, rejection or respect, dullness or excitement, and repulsion or rapture. These are the feelings and responses that we have to the things that happen to us; they are determined by both our personal and societal resources, our individual abilities, and the course of events.
Finally, the evaluation of life is an appraisal of the average effect of all of these interactions. It involves comparing our own life with our idea of the “good life,” and how the good and the bad in our life balances out.
Looking at Life Satisfaction by Country
Studies on the variance in life satisfaction between nations have shown that living conditions exert a strong influence over average life satisfaction. That is, economically prosperous countries tend to have a higher average life satisfaction than poorer nations; on a similar note, countries with better job prospects are generally higher in life satisfaction than countries where unemployment is high (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2017).
The correlation between income and life satisfaction is higher in poorer countries compared to more affluent countries, and life satisfaction tends to be higher in egalitarian countries. In countries with higher equality, people are more able to choose lifestyles that best fit their preferences and desires, making it more likely that they will be satisfied with their lives.
Education is an interesting point when studying life satisfaction; based on the variance between nations, it seems that more highly educated countries generally experience higher levels of satisfaction. However, it is interesting to note that for individuals, the effect of education on life satisfaction is stronger when few people within that individual’s country have gained the individual’s level of education. For example, a person with a bachelor’s degree in a country with low average education likely experiences a bigger boost to life satisfaction than a person with a bachelor’s degree in a more highly educated country (Salinas-Jiménez, Artés, & Salinas- Jiménez, 2011).
Variables such as mental and physical health, energy, extroversion, and empathy have all been shown to be strongly correlated to satisfaction, but it is sometimes hard to determine the direction in which these relationships work: are these variables the products or the causes of life satisfaction, or perhaps both?
The Importance of Life Satisfaction
Not only does greater life satisfaction make us feel happier and simply enjoy life more, it also has a positive impact on our health and well-being.
Research has found that life satisfaction is strongly correlated with health-related factors like chronic illness, sleep problems, pain, obesity, smoking, anxiety, and physical activity (Strine, Chapman, Balluz, Moriarty, & Mokdad, 2008). The relationship may move in both directions, but it’s clear that life satisfaction and health go hand in hand—increase or enhance one, and the other will likely soon follow.
Further, a recent study by researchers at Chapman University found that life satisfaction is actually related to a reduced risk of mortality! In addition, frequent fluctuations in life satisfaction have been shown to be particularly harmful for health and longevity (Boehm, Winning, Kubzansky, & Segerstrom, 2015).
Measuring Life Satisfaction
Beginning in the 1960s, life satisfaction was originally thought to be measured objectively and externally; the same way measuring heart rate or blood pressure can be measured objectively and externally. Since then, based on numerous studies of the subject, it has become evident that measuring life satisfaction objectively is fraught with difficulty.
Although life satisfaction is correlated with variables like income, health, and relationship quality, every individual may weight these variables differently than others. It is not unheard of that a person with low income, poor health, and few close relationships has higher life satisfaction than someone with wealth, a clean bill of health, and many friends.
Further, there is no objective way to measure life satisfaction from the outside. How would one measure life satisfaction externally—by the number of smiles? The ratio of laughter to tears? The frequency of dances for joy? If this sounds silly, you’re right; it’s meant to sound silly! Because of individual differences in personality and emotional expression, it’s absurd to think we can measure life satisfaction from the outside.
Thus, it logically follows that to get an accurate measure of life satisfaction, it must be obtained subjectively; common techniques for measuring include, surveys, questionnaires, and interviews.
The Satisfaction with Life Scale (PDF)
The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), created by Ed Diener, has been the most popular and widely used measure of life satisfaction since its inception in the 1980s. It consists of five statements that respondents rate on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). This assessment doesn’t specify explicit domains in which respondents should rate their satisfaction, such as work or health; instead, it asks more general questions to produce a subjective evaluation of life as a whole (Diener & Pavot, 1993).
This subjectivity is important in the measurement of life satisfaction because, as we noted earlier, people can and do differ widely based on variables such as country, religion, and values; though we call the same world “home,” we have such a variety of perspectives and ways of life that it would be impossible to break life satisfaction down into specific realms (Diener, Inglehart & Tay, 2013).
To learn more about this measure or to measure your own life satisfaction, click here. It is short, easy to answer, and it takes just one minute to complete.
The Wheel of Life
On a related note, if you want to take a more in-depth look at current satisfaction levels in various areas of your life, try using the “Wheel of Life” that is offered for free here at the Positive Psychology Program. It’s a tool that you can use to map out your satisfaction in each of the following 10 domains:
- Home/Physical Environment
- Partner, Love, Relationship
- Family/Friends/Social Relationships
Click here to download your free copy of the “Wheel of Life.”
The Life Satisfaction Index Questionnaire
Another popular scale of life satisfaction is the Life Satisfaction Index, a 20-item questionnaire that produces an overall measure of quality of life for adults over 50. It was created by researchers Neugarten, Havighurst, and Tobin in 1961, but it is still in use today. There is also an 11-item short form version of the questionnaire that provides similarly reliable results.
Whichever version is taken, the user responds to items based on a 3-point scale: Disagree, Don’t Know, and Agree. Some items are positively worded, with “Agree” getting the most points, and some items are negatively worded, with “Disagree” assigned maximum points. The higher the overall score, the higher the individual’s life satisfaction.
Some sample items include:
- As I grow older, things seem better than I thought they would be.
- I expect some interesting and pleasant things to happen to me in the future.
- Compared to other people my age, I’ve made a lot of foolish decisions in my life. (reverse-scored)
- When I think back over my life, I didn’t get most of the important things I wanted. (reverse-scored)
The original LSI spawned many adaptations and versions, many of which can be found online. To learn more about the LSI, click here.
Other Measuring Surveys and Inventories
Another popular method of measuring life satisfaction is with single-item measures. These measures use one single statement or question to produce an overall score of life satisfaction, and the results seem to be similar to those produced by longer scales and inventories. For example, a recent exploration of the single-item life satisfaction measure compared the SWLS with the item “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” rated on a scale from 1 (very satisfied) to 4 (very dissatisfied) found no substantial differences between the two measures (Cheung & Lucas, 2014).
One of the most recently developed measures of life satisfaction is the Riverside Life Satisfaction Scale (Margolis, Schwitzgebel, Ozer, & Lyubomirsky, 2018). The authors state that this measure improves on Diener and colleagues’ Satisfaction with Life Scale by increasing the scope of the measure and reducing the potential for acquiescence bias (a tendency to simply agree with items). The measure appears to be a good measure of life satisfaction and can be used with any English-speaking audience. It is composed of only 6 items and rated on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
The 6 items include:
- I like how my life is going.
- If I could live my life over, I would change many things.
- I am content with my life.
- Those around me seem to be living better lives than my own.
- I am satisfied with where I am in life right now.
- I want to change the path my life is on.
Any of these measures are good choices for getting a read on life satisfaction, but you may find that one suits your needs better than the others. If length is your main concern, you might want to go with a single-item measure. If validity and interpretability is your main concern, then you can’t go wrong with the SWLS.
Life Satisfaction in Old Age
Speaking of measuring life satisfaction, let’s take a look at what we know about differences in satisfaction with life.
In general, life satisfaction remains relatively high in old age; at least, it’s not all that different from life satisfaction in young people. Although the normal complaints of aging (e.g., aches and pains, sleeping problems) can take away from one’s enjoyment of life, the factors associated with these complaints often lose importance to older adults.
Average life satisfaction may not change much with age, but the contributing factors and how much weight is placed on them certainly does. Older adults do not place as much value on things like status and money as younger people, but they tend to place more value on family relationships and long-term fulfillment from one’s life. One’s overall physical health can be an important predictor of life satisfaction, but it seems that mental health is likely a much bigger contributor to life satisfaction than physical health in old age (Leyden Academy, n.d.).
Factors Affecting Life Satisfaction Among the Elderly
You probably won’t find this surprising, but one of the most influential factors affecting life satisfaction for elderly people is wisdom—defined as having “expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life,” the tendency towards reflection on one’s own behavior and that of others, and kindness and empathy instead of egotism (Ardelt, 1997).
While physical health, socioeconomic status, and social involvement can play a significant role in life satisfaction for elderly people (and for all people), wisdom was found to be almost twice as influential as the other factors. This is especially true for women, as tests show that physical health is much for important for elderly men than it is for elderly women (Ardelt, 1997).
A fascinating study on life satisfaction in older individuals who had already passed explored the impact of a slightly morbid factor—years from death. The researchers found that changes in life satisfaction were better predicted by years from death than age, indicating that the physical and cognitive declines that often take place as individuals near death are much more impactful on happiness and well-being than chronological age (Gerstorf, Ram, Rӧcke, Lindenberger, & Smith, 2008).
A more recent study on elderly individuals in China also emphasized the importance of health as a primary determining factor of life satisfaction for older adults (Ng, Tey, & Asadullah, 2017). The total list of important factors included:
- Gender (females +)
- Education (+)
- Place of residence (city + vs. town -)
- Health status (better health +)
- Cognitive ability (+)
- Regular physical examinations (+)
- Perceived relative economic status (+)
- Access to social security provisions (+)
- Commercialized insurances (+)
- Living arrangements (with family members +)
- Number of social services available in the community (+)
Interestingly, this study found that self-rated health had more of an impact on life satisfaction than objective measures of health (Ng et al., 2017). This fits with what we know about life satisfaction though—a lot of it comes down to your attitude!
How to Improve Life Satisfaction
So, can you improve your life satisfaction?
As we’ve suggested throughout this piece, yes! If you are not as satisfied with your life as you would like to be, there are things you can do to change this.
As we’ve seen, there are many factors associated with life satisfaction. Work on improving or enhancing these factors, and you will find that your life satisfaction improves at the same time. These factors include relationships with loved ones, fulfillment from work, satisfaction with your physical health, happiness with your romantic life, and contentment with your sense of spirituality or religion.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps offers five questions to help guide you on boosting your life satisfaction. These questions are grounded in research and sure to at least give you something to think about:
- Do you try new experiences? Trying new things and breaking out of your routine is a great way to improve your satisfaction with life.
- Do you try your hardest in everything you do? Committing yourself to whatever you do 100% (or as close as you can get) will give you a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that mindless work and passive pleasures simply can’t deliver.
- Do you enjoy spending time with other people? “No man is an island,” after all! Even the most introverted among us need at least a few quality connections and occasional social interactions to feel happy with their life.
- In your everyday interactions, do you approach people with a desire to get along? Related to getting out and meeting people, it’s important that those interactions are positive. Make an effort to be more positive and agreeable to ensure that you have the right kinds of interactions.
- Are you easily upset by different kinds of problems? Struggling with frequent anxiety, sadness, guilt, shame, or anger can easily drag you down. Set a goal to become a happier, more resilient person and work towards it. If you’re not sure how to go about it, set up some time with a therapist or counselor to discuss (Becker-Phelps, 2012).
Use these five questions to figure out where there is space for more satisfaction in your life.
14 Quotes on Life Satisfaction
If you’re looking for some good insight or uplifting quotes on life satisfaction, you’ve come to the right place! Check these out:
George Horace Lorimer
“You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction.”
Yuval Noah Harari
“The basic human reaction to pleasure is not satisfaction, but rather craving for more. Hence, no matter what we achieve, it only increases our craving, not our satisfaction.”
“To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction, is to live twice.”
Michel de Montaigne
“The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them… Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.”
Edgar A. Collard
“The rarity of happiness among those who achieved much is evidence that achievement is not in itself the assurance of a happy life. The great, like the humble, may have to find their satisfaction in the same plain things.”
“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
Francois La Rochefoucauld
“When we cannot find contentment in ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.”
“Satisfaction is not always the fulfillment of what you want; it is the realization of how blessed you are for what you have.”
“It is hard to be satisfied with life, if you’re never satisfied with yourself.”
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier.”
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
“Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”
“Psychological wealth includes life satisfaction, the feeling that life is full of meaning, a sense of engagement in interesting activities, the pursuit of important goals, the experience of positive emotional feelings, and a sense of spirituality that connects people to things larger than themselves.”
A Take-Home Message
In this piece, we covered the topic of life satisfaction, differentiated it from happiness and well-being, and discussed its correlates and contributing factors. I hope you found this information helpful and that you leave with a clearer understanding of the importance of life satisfaction, both in research and in life.
What are your thoughts on life satisfaction? What are the biggest contributors to life satisfaction for you? Do you have another theory of life satisfaction that you hold to? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
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