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Asking the question, “Am I living a fulfilling life?” is an essential part of being human.
The answer to the age-old question is based on one’s subjective well-being (SWB), which, as the term suggests, is completely particular to the individual in question. There are no set guidelines for how to develop a higher level of SWB.
That being said, there are certain ways to feel more positive and satisfied with your life, leading to a higher degree of SWB.
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The term subjective well-being is defined as an individual’s experience of affective reactions and cognitive judgments.
Happiness is sometimes used interchangeably with SWB, but the terms mean different things. Although SWB and happiness are correlated, SWB has a more wide-ranging definition. SWB looks at satisfaction generally, as well as a sense of satisfaction according to a particular person’s standard.
Assessing life satisfaction involves past experience and future expectations. Having a high SWB involves having “pleasant emotions, low level of negative mood, and high life satisfaction” (Diener, Lucas, & Oishi, 2002).
There are two components to SWB: affective and cognitive. The affective component is associated with emotions, feelings, and moods, while the cognitive component refers to what the individual thinks about his or her life satisfaction.
People exhibiting high SWB will have positive affects, meaning they experience positive emotions like elation and joy more often than negative ones. It should be noted that the presence of positive affect does not signify the absence of negative affect, and vice versa.
Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions, but those who have more positive emotions than negative ones will display a more positive affect.
When measuring SWB, affective balance and life satisfaction must be calculated individually as they are two separate subjects. Examples of affective and life satisfaction measurements are, respectively, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS). Both rely on self-reporting, a method whose validity is currently being scrutinized by the psychology community.
One potential downside of self-report measurements is that participants may not be fully truthful when questioned. Situational factors have also been shown to sway the responses of individuals, including the affect of the person during the assessment and the way in which the items are presented. In addition, there is also uncertainty about distinguishing whether certain factors are consequences or causes of SWB.
Although there is uncertainty about the reliability of self-reporting, it remains the best way to measure SWB, since you are the most knowledgeable person when it comes to the expression of your personal well-being.
The self-discrepancy theory states that people tend to compare themselves to internalized standards.
According to the self-discrepancy theory, there are three domains of the self: the actual-self, the ought-self, and the ideal-self.
The actual-self represents qualities that you or someone else believes you actually possess. The-ought self is representative of the characteristics that you or someone else believe you should possess (e.g. obligations). And the ideal-self represents those characteristics that you or someone else would ideally like you to possess (e.g. aspirations).
Take This Home With You
Luckily, we have some control over our well-being. We can put ourselves in environments and situations that will increase our experiences of positive emotions and increase our levels of life satisfaction. In this way, we are not merely products of our environment, rather we have the power to attain higher levels of SWB.
As the late psychologist Carl Jung put it:
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
We are each able to take the necessary steps toward a life of happiness and fulfillment.
5 Questions on Subjective Well-Being (SWB) Answered
Does everyone have the same definitions of SWB and happiness?
Seeking happiness is a global desire (Suh & Koo, 2003), but research has found cultural differences among perceptions of happiness.
In fact, we don’t have a universal definition of happiness. For example in Ancient Rome, happiness came from the word felicitas, whose origins can be found in the Latin word for breastfeeding. Happiness was not considered a passive act of joy, instead, it was focused on the act of giving (Arnal, 2011).
From another perspective, the Buddhist practice of Soka Gakkai defines happiness as, “The robust sense of fulfillment one feels when bravely confronting hardship. It is that elevation of the spirit” (Ikeda, 2015).
How was happiness achieved in the past?
Early humans felt great accomplishment when they succeeded in achieving goals related to survival, like hunting. That sense of achievement made them return each day to hunt, while the ones who never felt the sense of necessity to hunt for food didn’t survive (Carr, 2007).
Taking evolutionary lessons from our ancestors, it’s possible that our tendency to equate the hunt for achievement with happiness is tied up with our drive for survival. This could be a reason for why people believe happiness comes by obtaining things and why, once we obtain them, we are never permanently satisfied.
It seems that people today have an expectation of experiencing SWB when hunting for the latest car model, a beautiful house, a perfect wedding, or a good job position. People tend to spend a lot of energy, money, and effort on achieving those goals, even when the effect on SWB is short-lived.
So then, where does subjective well-being lead us? What are the correlations?
Eid and Larsen (2008) compiled scientific research related to the effects of SWB.
They found that people who increased their SWB also increased their productivity and performance at work, led more effectively, were more creative, had more satisfying social relationships, had higher self-esteem, and had a greater appreciation of other people. In addition, those people had lower rates of mental illness.
Furthermore, people who have a more internal locus of control and optimism also tend to find happiness faster (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).
Research conducted in the United Kingdom showed that health and well-being can nourish each other, as health influences well-being and vice versa (Steptoe, Demakakos, & de Oliveira, 2012). The most significant correlation found was with a “stronger immune system response, higher pain tolerance, increased longevity, cardiovascular health, slower disease progression and, reproductive health” (Steptoe et al., 2012).
Okay, so what does neuroscience say about this?
Scientists are coming closer to understanding the functioning neuroanatomy of happiness. Researchers have identified regions of the brain important to its hedonic networks (related to pleasure or positive emotions).
There is also some speculation that these regions are related to eudaimonic networks (cognitive appraisals of the meaning of life and life satisfaction). Studies have also confirmed that happiness activates brain regions associated with pleasure, positive appraisals of life satisfaction and meaning, and social connectedness (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).
Research on positive neuroscience is becoming more common. Psychologist Martin Seligman, considered to be one of the founders of positive psychology, said of positive neuroscience (2010):
“Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement, and resilience, and can buffer against depression and anxiety. While considerable research in neuroscience has focused on disease, dysfunction, and the harmful effects of stress and trauma, very little is known about the neural mechanisms of human flourishing. Creating this network of future leaders in positive neuroscience will change that.”
How can I increase my subjective well-being?
Again, there are no set guidelines on how to experience a higher SWB, but there are factors that generally contribute to it.
Surrounding yourself with positivity may seem like an obvious solution, but is oftentimes overlooked. Feeling positive emotions is undeniably something we all strive for. When we do experience positive emotions, whatever they may be, we should try to focus on what brought about these emotions. By identifying the source of our emotions, we can regulate them to a certain extent.
Setting goals is a surefire way of experiencing more positivity. Short-term, achievable goals, along with long-term aspirations can increase one’s positive affect.
The great thing about positive emotions is that they lead to more positive emotions. This blog post about creating positive emotions outlines achievable steps to that end.
Another popular method is to follow is the PERMA model, created by Seligman. Following that model, here are some practical exercises that you can put to use to increase your SWB.
- Start a gratitude journal. Find gratitude for what happened in your day today. Take what didn’t work out today as an opportunity to fix things tomorrow.
- Observe your language. Try to switch each negative description or opinion with something positive. If you find yourself having a particularly bad day and can’t help but say something negative, end the sentence with “But I am grateful for…”
- Being positive can be contagious. Try rephrasing negative comments or complaints around friends or family. Let them see the process of feeling positive. They will want to try it, too.
- Before you get out of bed, take a moment to plan your day, and to answer the question, Why is it going to be an awesome day?
- Try new activities until you find one that you want to stick to regularly. Do an activity that you love, an activity that feels like time stops when you are doing it. Repeat that activity frequently.
- Develop your personal strengths and recognize your own value. Share your experience with someone.
- Don’t get too used to routines, even the ones at work. Switch it up from time to time to keep you engaged.
- Call or mail a friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Don’t forget to send your best wishes to them.
- Write a gratitude letter to someone that helped you or taught you an important life lesson, even when you didn’t ask for it. Read it to him or her.
- Try to establish new friendships. Start conversations with new people, perhaps with some interesting topics already in mind. Be courageous!
- Family is very important. Tell your family that you appreciate them and love them. Try expressing physical emotions to them (by giving hugs, for example).
- Ask for help when you need it. Offer your help if you think someone else would appreciate it.
- Be attached to something larger than yourself. Think about how you can help others in the long-term.
- What have been some difficult experiences in your life? How did they help you in becoming who you are now? Consider sharing your answers with someone.
- When was the last time you couldn’t sleep because you were so excited? Try to remember the reason why that exciting moment had meaning for you.
- Answer the question: How would you like to be remembered?
- Imagine that you have only one year left to live. What would you do with your time?
- Write a list of personal goals, both short- and long-term. Map out a realistic way to achieve them.
- Aim to learn something new every day.
- Become good at something you like to do and share your knowledge with others.
- Try doing the things you’ve always wanted to do but never had time for. For example, pick up a book that you’ve always wanted to read.
There’s more. We can enhance the PERMA model with a few other important practices.
Experts at the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute believe that it is also possible to achieve a PERMA PLUS model with the following additions:
Exercising improves mental health, increases happiness, and provides a sense of accomplishment.
Eating healthy is crucial for mental health. Research shows that eating a healthy diet lowers depression, and that diets high in fresh fruit and leafy greens increase self-control and emotion regulation.
Rest is important. Sleep deprivation reduces one’s ability to learn and negatively affects immune function, metabolism, and memory.
Ryff’s Six-Factor Model
In addition to the PERMA model, another well-accepted and readily applied theory of well-being is Carol Ryff’s six-factor model. Before we dive into the specifics, it is important to note two underlying notions that these models share:
- Well-being and happiness are not synonymous. Happiness has to do with emotional state or life satisfaction, while well-being is a broader term;
- Well-being is a multifaceted construct, made up of multiple elements.
Ryff’s Model of Psychological Well-Being
Pyschologist Carol Ryff developed her six-factor model of well-being in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the model has become widely used. Her research has described six factors as the major components of well-being:
Self-acceptance, whether in the past or present, entails awareness of one’s good qualities, along with acknowledgement and forgiveness of one’s less-desirable qualities.
2. Positive relations with others
This component is the health of one’s interpersonal life. The ability to love and empathize is essential for this component.
Autonomy refers to the degree of independence one has in decision-making and how one acts in the face of social and cultural norms.
4. Environmental mastery
Environmental mastery is the extent to which one can choose their environments and adapt them to match their needs and desires.
5. Purpose in life
One’s purpose is found in goals and the avenues through which one can effect change. This purpose should be adaptable and change over time when conditions shift.
6. Personal growth
Ryff describes this as an elevating life trajectory and continual development. Success in this dimension requires that one constantly seeks new challenges and experiences to catalyze their growth.
While the exact nature of well-being is still a matter of debate, there are many steps you can take in finding well-being in your own life. And by no means do we need to wait for the psychology community to settle on a single conception of well-being. The trick to improving your well-being to find what gives your life meaning and makes you happy. Whether it’s helping your family with Christmas preparations or going skydiving, do more of what gives you joy.
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