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Are There Different Types of Subjective Well-Being?

by James E. Maddux, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

This column is the second in a series that will deal with a variety of issues in the scientific study of well-being by me and a variety of other scholars and researchers. This second installment will explore subjective well-being, which is concerned with how people think and feel about their lives.

As I noted in my previous column, subjective well-being is a psychological construct concerned with how people think and feel about their lives. To do good research on psychological constructs, we need clear conceptions or definitions of the constructs and clear theories of the constructs. Conceptions of constructs are concerned with how they are defined and measured. Theories of constructs are concerned with explaining and predicting how the phenomena described by the constructs develop and change.

Researchers need to agree on the definitions of the constructs they study before they can try to develop theories to explain them. They need to know exactly what they are trying to explain or predict – and how they are going to measure it – before they can conduct research to try to explain or predict it. If researchers can’t agree on this and use different definitions and measures in their research, comparing findings across studies can be difficult or impossible, which will impede scientific progress.

Unfortunately, one of the continuing problems with research on subjective well-being is the lack of consensus among researchers on how to define and measure it. Perhaps the biggest debate concerns the distinction between hedonic definitions and measures of subjective well-being and eudaimonic definitions and measures. These are not different theories of the causes of subjective well-being but simply different definitions of subjective well-being that lead to different ways of measuring it.

In hedonic conceptions, subjective well-being is defined by the balance of pleasant and unpleasant events in a person’s life. In this definition, I have “a good life” if I experience more pleasure and enjoyment than pain and suffering, regardless of the sources of these events and experiences. My moral and ethical values, virtues, goals, achievements, and contributions to other people and society are largely irrelevant. What matters is to what extent I enjoy my life, generally feel good as opposed to bad, experience pleasure as opposed to pain and discomfort, and am more or less satisfied with my life. I am the sole judge of whether or not I am living a happy and satisfying life. The opinions of other people (including philosophers and psychologists) as to whether I am leading a “good” or “meaningful” life are irrelevant.

Most theorists and researchers agree on how to define and measure hedonic subjective well-being. The measurement used most commonly employed in research is the tripartite measure (tripartite means three parts) that was developed by psychologist Edward Diener. The three parts of this measure are positive affect (or emotion), negative affect, and life satisfaction. I have relatively high hedonic subjective well-being experiences if I experience pleasant emotions such as joy and contentment more often than I experience unpleasant emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger, and if I feel satisfied with my life most of the time, regardless of the causes of my pleasant emotions and satisfaction. 

Eudaimonic conceptions reject the idea that subjective well-being is only about good or bad feeling and pleasure or pain. Instead, an eudaimonic approach to well-being emphasizes the idea that subjective well-being consists of identifying our talents and abilities and making the most of them in a way that contributes to the well-being of other people and the betterment of the world in which we live. This conception can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, written in 350 B.C., in which he used the term eudaimonia to refer primarily to the idea that a “good life” involves achieving the best that is within us, making the best use of our unique talents and capacities, understanding ourselves honestly and truthfully, and living a life of personal responsibility. In this conception, subjective well-being is determined not by the quality of my sensual and emotional experiences but by the extent to which I am living up to my potential, making progress toward attaining goals that are important to me, and living a life of meaning, purpose, and virtue.

One of the biggest problems with the research on eudaimonic subjective well-being is that the vagueness of its ideas has led to many different ways of defining and measuring it. For example, a recent journal article reported that researchers have used at least 11 different definitions involving various combinations of 12 basic features such as self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, meaning in life, purpose in life, control over one’s environment, accomplishments, and autonomy (independence). This, of course, makes comparing the results of different studies of eudaimonic subjective well-being difficult.

But are hedonic and eudaimonic subjective well-being – or at least how researchers measure them – really all that different?  The research suggests that they aren’t – that their measures are strongly related and that measures of one strongly predict measures of the other.  

Before continuing, we need to take a brief detour into statistics. If two different measures are strongly predictive each other, we say that they are highly correlated (co-related). The correlation between two measures can range from .00 (they don’t predict each other at all) and 1.0 (they predict each other perfectly). Various studies have found that correlations between hedonic and eudaimonic measures of subjective well-being range from .76 to .92. A recent study conducted by a team that included researchers from our center with a large international sample  found a correlation of .96 between the most widely-used hedonic measure and the most widely-used eudaimonic measure.

When two measures are this highly correlated, many psychologists conclude that they are measuring the same thing, although in two different ways. So it seems that despite the traditional philosophical distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic conceptions of subjective well-being, and despite the fact that most people can make a distinction between a life that is happy and a life that is meaningful when asked, the research strongly suggests that measures of hedonic and eudaimonic subjective well-being are measuring the same subjective psychological state, regardless of what we decide to call that state. Perhaps people attain hedonic subjective well-being and life satisfaction by engaging in most of the activities noted in eudaimonic definitions of subjective well-being. Or perhaps people who, by nature, feel good most of the time decide to engage in those activities. We simply don’t know what causes what.

As I noted previously, hedonic and eudaimonic ways of thinking about subjective well-being are ways of defining and measuring subjective well-being, but they are not theories that attempt explain where subjective well-being comes, from, how it develops, and how it might be changed. Such theories might provide us with some tentative answers to the difficult question of what causes what. That will be the topic of the next installment of this series.