Subjective Well-Being: Your Life, Your Happiness

subjective well-being

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 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.



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 affect, meaning they experience positive emotions like elation and joy more often than negative ones. 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.

In addition to having a positive affect, an individual with a high level of SWB will possess high levels of life satisfaction.



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 effect 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.


Self-Discrepancy Theory

self discrepancy theory 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

Whether you are new to SWB or familiar with it, there are lots of questions you may have regarding it. We hope this section breaks them down for you.

1) 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).

2) 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.

3) So 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).

4) 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.”

5) 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 effect.

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.

The PERMA Model

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:

Physical Activity

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:

  1. Well-being and happiness are not synonymous. Happiness has to do with emotional state or life satisfaction, while well-being is a broader term;
  2. Well-being is a multifaceted construct, made up of multiple elements.

Ryff’s Model of Psychological Well-Being

Psychologist 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:

1. Self-acceptance

Self-acceptance, whether in the past or present, entails awareness of one’s good qualities, along with acknowledgment 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.

3. Autonomy

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.

What are your tips for increasing SWB? Let us know below!

Albuquerque, B. (n.d.). Positive Psychology UK. Retrieved May 16, 2015, from here

Carr, A. (2007). Psicología Positiva. La ciencia de la felicidad. Barcelona, España: Ediciones Paídos Iberica.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness, and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34-43.

Diener, E. (n.d.). The Satisfaction With Life Scale. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from here

Diener, E. (n.d.). Happiness: The Science of Subjective Well-Being. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from here

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Oishi, S. (2002). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and life satisfaction. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), The handbook of positive psychology (pp.63- 73). New York: Oxford University Press.

Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. E. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress.  Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.

Doyle, B. (n.d.). Self-Discrepancy Theory – Motivation at a Glance: An ISchool Collaborative.

Eid, M., y Larsen, R. (2008). The Science of Subjetive Well-Being. New York, US: The Guilford Press.

Ikeda, D. (2015). Happiness | Words of Wisdom by Daisaku Ikeda. Retrieved November 7, 2015, from

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Social Research, 77(2), 659–678.

Moss, S. (2009, October 14). Self discrepancy theory. Retrieved May 16, 2015, from here

Perma and Perma Plus. (2015). Retrieved November 8, 2015, from

Seligman, M. (2010). Positive Neuroscience. Templeton Positive Neuroscience Award Recipients. Retrieved November 8, 2015, from

Steptoe, A; Demakakos, P; de Oliveira, C; (2012) The psychological well-being, health and functioning of older people in England. In: Banks, J and Nazroo, J and Steptoe, A, (eds.) The dynamics of ageing: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing 2002-10 (Wave 5). (98 – 182). The Institute for Fiscal Studies: London.

Suh, E., y Koo, J. (2003). Comparing subjective Well-Being across cultures and nations. En S. J. Lopez, y C. R. Snyder, (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures, (pp. 219-220). Washington, US: American Psychological Association. Subjective Well-Being. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from here

About the Author

Teresa Del Pilar Rojas is a Peruvian psychology major from the University of Lima. She holds a specialization in Logotherapy and existential Analysis by the Peruvian Institute of Logotherapy, and is in the process of being certified at the Viktor Frankl Institute of Vienna.


  1. Ericson Dela Cruz

    Mam Teresa:)

    This article is very much interesting and helpful on my part. Presently, I am studying in the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Laguna. Philippines. I am now in my Dissertation outline preparation. I am also interested about well-being study.

    Thank you so much mam.

    God bless…

    Ericson Dela Cruz
    PhD student, Major in Community and Development, Minor in Agribusiness Management and Entrepreneurship

  2. Agus Yustinus

    Hi Teresa, thank you so much for your article. I am pursuing my MA in Guidance and Counseling at De La Salle University (DLSU) Manila, Philippines. I have plan to write my thesis about Prayer and Subjective Well Being (SWB) by the end this year, 2016. What do you think? Do you have any suggestion? Kindly share your thoughts and recommend some articles related to my topic. Thanks Teresa.

    Best wishes
    Agus Yustinus


    Thank you Teresa for the wonderful article !

    I just wanted to add my thought on increasing SWB – practicing meditation/mindfulness exercises also increases inner strength which in return provides us the REAL happiness and also satisfaction in long run. Taming mind for following the steps(engagement,relationships,etc) that you have mentioned in your article is not possible for everyone until and unless they have clarity and some self control. With mindfulness exercises like concentrating on breathing , doing actions in awareness can lead to a huge difference in increasing SWB.

    So basically the summary is if we need to break the things or change the old habits we need to work with our best friend but the worse enemy – MIND.

    Have a wonderful year ahead !


    – May God lit the flame of love and knowledge in everyone’s heart.

    • Reham Al Taher

      Hi Vishal,

      Mindfulness definitely improves our resilience. You’re right that the only way to improve first is to befriend the mind. Thanks for your feedback 🙂

    • Teresa Del Pilar Rojas

      Dear Vishal,

      Thank you for adding such an important argument. I wish you a marvelous year in 2016.
      I agree with you, mindfulness is a great way to improve subjective well-being too. Fortunately nowadays there is an increase in the number of people that decide to enrich their lives by putting it in practice.
      I think it is important to provide people every source or advice possible. Also that’s the reason why this article provides such diverse tips. Yours is really important.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment this article.

  4. Maarten Müller

    Hi Teresa,
    Nice paper! i like the intro in which you state the definicion of happiness and its origins. I also like the part in which you state that the focus on positivity in psycghology can be just as effective as the diminishing of negative aspects in the psychology. It is a nice piece in general. my advise would be to expand the amount of material you have already created and, for example, make formats or tools which help stimulate the cliënts in working acording to your PERMA model. some activities which you have mentioned are very nice and relatively easy to achieve, but some are stil quite vague or dificult to put to action, for example: •Try new activities until you find the one that you want to stick to regularly.” i hope you can do something with my feeback.

    Best wishes,

    • Teresa Del Pilar Rojas

      Dear Marteen,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you is important to take a look not only to the definition of happiness, also to the original conception. Positive Psychology had the great potential to enhance our life through its marvellous contributions based on science. I invite you to continue learning from it.

      I had take note of what you wrote about the activities. I will public more practical activities, easy to achieve :).

      Thank you very much for take the time to write us. There are also many interesting articles on this website, I invite you to take a look.
      Have nice day,


  5. Kaylene Cahill

    SWB is something we’re all searching or striving for, along with happiness which, to my mind, is a little more tenuous, and yet something “everyone” appears to expect that they both deserve, and have a right to experience, at all times. And when this state is not achieved, “depression” develops, as we become concerned that everyone around us is happy, and yet we are not.
    Emmy van Deurzen, a philosopher and existential psychotherapist, discusses the quest for happiness, and depicts an emotional compass where Happiness is at 12 o’clock, and sadness/despair is at 6 o’clock. The spectrum, moving clockwise, encompasses a decline in the happiness scale that encompasses pride, jealousy, anger/despair, fear and sorrow, as mood plummets towards sadness. An escalation then, encompassing shame, envy, hope/desire, love and joy follows, as we manoeuvre around the clock face towards a state of happiness. The declining side is DISengaging from happiness, and the INclining side is engaging with it.
    I guess my point here is, that we cannot expect to attain the state of “happiness” ALL of the time. Our relational biology is such that we take regular emotional journeys as a result of our humanness. Acceptance that life cannot, and should not, be lateral and linear, ie: either stuck in a state of bliss or wallowing in the depths of despair, is essential to understanding that life is a journey, and that the paths we take, the choices we make, the experiences we subject ourselves to or which are impressed upon us, will sometimes be smooth and sometimes not. When one appraises one’s chronological existence, and the personal growth/resilience/maturity/knowledge/wisdom etc that has resulted, one can only be grateful that one has been given a life with which to achieve and accomplish that which will stand us in the BEST STEAD, towards our being happy – whatever, subjectively, that is.

    • Teresa Del Pilar Rojas

      Dear Kaylene,
      Thank you so much for take a time to write the comment. As humans we can experiment different emotions, positive or negatives. As Phd. Emmy Van Deurzen said is similar to walk through a path where we would experiment many of them at different moments of our life.

      As you might seen in the article subjective well-being do not consider the absence of the negatives emotions, but it do consider a low level of them. Some negative emotions play a crucial role in life, for example on duel.

      Life is like a journey and while we travel we won’t be experimenting just one side of the emotions always. Life can surprise us with unexpected events, the one thing that never changes is change. For that I like to remember Viktor Frankl quote : “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

      Is really important to take a look inside and see who much we have conquered our own growth, resilience, maturity, knowledge, wisdom. Doing it is a marvelous way to compare us with our self, instead to focus attention on comparing us with others.

      Thank you for take the time to this article and also visit this website.

      Greetings from Lima – Perú !


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