Theories of Subjective Well-Being

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

Theories of Subjective Well-Being

In my last column on types of subjective well-being, I described hedonic and eudaimonic ways of thinking about subjective well-being and noted that they are ways of defining and measuring subjective well-being but are not theories that attempt to explain where subjective well-being comes, from, how it develops, and how it might be changed. Theories of subjective well-being will be the topic of this installment. 

Although research cannot support or refute conceptions or definitions of subjective well-being, it can support or refute theories of subjective well-being, because theories (at least good ones) make predictions about the relation between one variable and another or the effect of one variable on another. The two basic types of theories of subjective well-being about which we have considerable research are life circumstance theories (also referred to as “bottom-up” theories) and dispositional/construal theories (also referred to as “top-down” and construal theories)

Life Circumstance Theories

Life circumstance theories propose that your subjective well-being is mainly the result of the number of positive and negative events and circumstances in your life — both day-to-day life experiences and favorable or unfavorable demographic factors such as socioeconomic status, education, and physical health.   From this perspective, people who were born into advantageous circumstances (e.g., financial security, stable family life) and to whom good things happen more often than bad things will have greater subjective well-being than less advantaged, less fortunate people. In addition, life circumstance theories propose that overall subjective well-being and life satisfaction are the result of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with a variety of life domains (work, family, relationships, etc.) in which positive and negative events, experiences, and emotions may occur. 

Some research supports life circumstance theories. For example, a study of athletic teams found that the effect of team members’ satisfaction with the team (a life domain) on life satisfaction of the team members was stronger than the effect of life satisfaction on team satisfaction. In addition, a married person’s satisfaction with his or her marriage (a life domain) predicts his or her overall life satisfaction, but not vice versa. In addition, satisfaction with housing, financial situation, and social life predicts overall life satisfaction, but not vice versa. Employment, satisfaction with employment, and loss of employment also can have powerful effects on subjective well-being. Finally, a change in satisfaction with specific life domains predicts a change in overall life satisfaction. Research also suggests that we each have a subjective well-being set point (a kind of average) to which we usually return following increases in subjective well-being due to positive life events and decreases in subjective well-being due to negative life events. However, this set point can be changed by seriously aversive life events such as unemployment or serious disability.

Dispositional/Construal Theories

Dispositional theories propose that subjective well-being is primarily the result not of life circumstances but of the biological or temperamental factors that influence how we interpret and judge life circumstances and events. The research evidence is strong for genetic influences on predispositions in the way we perceive or construe positive and negative life events. For this reason, dispositional theories are also construal theories because they propose that cognitive construals (beliefs, perceptions, and interpretations) of life events and circumstances (not the events and circumstances themselves) are the most important influences on subjective well-being.

Supporting dispositional/construal theories is research suggesting that genetic predisposition may account for as much as 50 percent of the differences among people in their current subjective well-being and as much as 80 percent  of long-term differences (i.e., over a period of 10 years). In addition, identical twins who are raised apart are more similar in subjective well-being than are fraternal twins who are raised together, which suggests that genes are more important than environment and learning. Genetics also strongly influences the establishment of the subjective well-being set point.

A large body of research on the heritability (or inheritability) of personality and the strong relationship between personality and mental health and subjective well-being also supports dispositional/construal theories. Most of this the research has been conducted on the so-called “Big Five” personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

Neuroticism is the general disposition to experience negative emotions such as anxiety and depression, so it is not surprising that people higher in neuroticism generally report lower subjective well-being than people lower in neuroticism. This difference is partly because people higher in neuroticism are more likely to interpret neutral life events in negative ways and to experience anxiety and depression in reaction to negative life events.

Extraversion is strongly associated with subjective well-being. People who are more extraverted (socially outgoing) generally report greater subjective well-being than more introverted (solitary) people. Extraversion also may influence subjective well-being because extraverted people experience positive emotions more readily than do more introverted people. Finally, more extraverted people spend more time with other people, and spending time with people is associated with greater subjective well-being regardless of their degree of extraversion or introversion.

People high in agreeableness (congenial, easy to get along with, and considerate) usually report greater subjective well-being than people lower in agreeableness, possibly because they are more likely to promote harmony in relationships and less likely to promote conflict. Highly conscientiousness people (organized, dependable, responsible, and persistent) report greater subjective well-being than less conscientious people, probably because they are typically more persistent in striving toward meaningful goals, less likely to procrastinate, have a greater ability to delay gratification, have greater social connectedness, and are more physically active -- all of which are associated with greater subjective well-being.

Openness to experience (e.g., a preference for variety and intellectual curiosity) has a relatively weak relationship with subjective well-being compared to the other four traits.

Support for the influence of disposition or personality on subjective well-being is also found in the research on enduring mental health that shows that a small minority of people (perhaps 17 percent) go through life without ever experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder. These people are not generally higher in socioeconomic status than other people, nor do they report significantly better physical health, nor are they more intelligent. The differences, instead, appear to be in temperament, personality, and a family history of relatively few mental health problems, all of which are strongly inheritable.

There is enough support for both life circumstance and dispositional/construal theories of subjective well-being that we should view them as complimentary rather than in opposition.  Both theories help to explain why some people generally experience greater subjective well-being than other people. In particular, you should not conclude from the research described here that a biological predisposition toward certain patterns of thinking and feeling means that these patterns are “fixed” by biology. Instead, a more reasonable (and useful) conclusion is that biology may establish for any individual a general range within with he or she functions but that we can still powerfully influence our subjective well-being by changing our life circumstances, arranging for positive life events, and (most importantly) changing the way we interpret positive and negative life events. 

The takeaway message from this research, in my opinion, is that although you may be someone with a genetic predisposition to look on the negative side of things and, therefore, to experience generally lower subjective well-being than other people with more naturally sunny dispositions, you can still learn to identify those habitual ways of thinking that interfere with your sense of well-being and work to change them. This is the essence of what is generally known as cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.