What is Well-Being?

A Brief History of the Scientific Study of Well-Being

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

What is Well-Being?

This column is the first 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 first installment will explore what well-being is, as well as a brief history of the scientific study of well-being.

Our center defines well-being as “building a life of vitality, purpose, resilience, and engagement.” The inclusion of the word building is important because it reminds us that well-being is a dynamic process or a journey and not a static destination that we attain and then sit back and enjoy. Consistent with the idea that well-being is something that we build is the idea that we can cultivate well-being through intentional behavior. In addition, the term resilience reminds us that life is a series of challenges – and often setbacks – that we learn to overcome and from which we can actually benefit. Finally, the definition of well-being endorsed by our center includes the idea that well-being involves subjectivity (that is, what each person thinks and feels about his or her well-being) yet can be measured scientifically.

The idea that well-being is at least partly subjective raises an important distinction between objective well-being and subjective well-being. Economists, for example, usually use in their research objective measures of well-being such as a nation’s per capita (per person) gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of goods and services produced by a nation divided by its population. Studies of a nation’s quality of life also use relatively objective measures of well-being such as the quality of education, health care, and infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, airports, clean water supply), crime rates, and even climate. Of course, even these are not completely objective measures because each of these factors can be measured in different ways and weighted differently when coming up with an overall measure of quality of life, so human judgment and opinion always plays a role. Subjective well-being, however, is a psychological construct concerned not with what people or nations have or what happens to them but with how people think about and feel about what they have and what happens to them.

The association between objective (economic) well-being and subjective (psychological) well-being is strong but far from perfect. Plenty of relatively rich people are miserable, and plenty of relatively poor people lead lives of meaning and joy. In addition, average subjective well-being is greater in some relatively poor countries than in some relatively rich countries. Nigerians, for example, typically report higher levels of subjective well-being than do the Japanese, despite a tremendous difference in per capita GDP between these two countries. In addition, as rich nations have become richer over the past several decades (as measured by per capita GDP), the average subjective well-being of their citizens, according to most surveys, has not increased. 

Although economists and government policy makers have historically focused on objective measures of well-being, they have become increasingly concerned with measures of subjective well-being. Some economists even believe that these objective measures are important primarily because of their impact subjective well-being. 

Interest in subjective well-being goes beyond an interest in the subjective well-being of individuals. In the field of education, a “positive education” movement is concerned with enhancing the well-being of all members of the education community and includes efforts in primary and secondary schools and universities. In fact, one of the major missions of our center is making Mason a model well-being university. Organizational and employee well-being are of growing concern and interest in the fields of management and industrial/organizational psychology. Our center’s leadership programs empower people to become agents of positive change in the workplace. 

The subjective well-being of nations is also worth measuring. The United Nations has published an annual World Happiness Report since 2011 and passed a resolution in 2017 stating that the happiness of its citizens should be a goal of national governments. Japan, South Korea, Ecuador, and Bolivia all include the goal of increasing their citizens’ subjective well-being in their national constitutions. The government of Bhutan decided in 1972 to start measuring that country’s “gross national happiness” and to use the goal of increasing gross national happiness as a guide for the government’s plans for economic development. In 2013, Santa Monica, California became the first city in the United States to officially make its citizens’ subjective well-being a priority by launching its Well-Being Project. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has endorsed the use of measures of subjective well-being as indicators of economic and social progress, as has France’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The United Arab Emirates has a Minister of State for Happiness, and Ecuador has a Minister of Good Living. In 2017, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General launched an initiative to enhance subjective well-being among people living in the United States. 

The scientific study of subjective well-being predates the official launching of the positive psychology movement by at least 70 years, beginning with studies of marital satisfaction in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the most important early works was Cantril’s The Pattern of Human Concerns (1965), which presented the “Cantril ladder” measure of subjective well-being now used in surveys for the United Nation’s annual World Happiness Report. The first major journal review article on subjective well-being was published in 1967. Other early major contributions to the study of subjective well-being include The Quality of American life (1976) by Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers and Social Indicators of Well-Being: Americans’ Perceptions of Life Quality (1976) by Andrews and Withey. American psychologist Edward Diener published a landmark American Psychologist article on subjective well-being in 1984 and Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven published a separate review of research on subjective well-being that same year. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists and quality of life researchers were studying the influence of demographic factors such as income and marriage on subjective well-being. Some mental health researchers advocated extending the definition of mental health beyond the absence of symptoms of psychopathology to also include the presence of happiness and life satisfaction.  For several decades, social psychologists have studied the personalities, beliefs, and behaviors of happier and unhappier people, as well as people who are more satisfied or less satisfied with their lives.

The scientific study of well-being (objective and subjective) has a long and rich history, and the body of scientific research on well-being continues to grow. Of course, all areas of scientific research are subject to disagreements and controversies over how to define the most important concepts, how to measure these concepts, and how to conduct good research. The next installment of this series will deal with some of these disagreements and controversies.

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