Subjective wellbeing: A critical discussion of its strengths and weaknesses
Subjective Wellbeing is a new science and has to do with how people see their lives in terms of personal satisfaction (Diener, Suh, and Oishi, 2005, pg. 1). It can be affected by moods, illness, positive and negative emotions, economic status, and many other factors. The concept of Subjective Wellbeing has been around for a long time; however it has only been in recent years that researchers have studied and tested it. All those involved admit that it is not the final word and more research needs to be conducted (Frank, 2005, pgs. 69-79). Subjective Wellbeing has strengths, but there are also limitations.
Subjective Wellbeing studies are important and valuable in that they provide us with a deeper understanding of human nature and they give us information that will assist us in improving the quality of life for others. Much progress has been made in researching the area of subjective wellbeing, but most of the current literature in this field indicates there are limitations.
One of the strengths of Subjective Wellbeing is its usefulness in improving the quality of life. Emmons and McCullough (2003) conducted a study on the effects of gratitude on wellbeing. Participants were randomly assigned conditions. They were asked to meditate once a week or once a day for 2-3 weeks on what in their life they can be grateful for. They claim the results of this study were significant in their positive impact on wellbeing. They had to admit that they did not know how long the results would last (pg. 386).
Subjective Wellbeing studies are usually administered as questionnaires and can give us a good indication as to quality of life for individuals providing the term “wellbeing” is clearly defined (Muldoon, Barger, Flory, and Manuck, 2003, pp. 542-545). Any abstract study of this nature must have clear definitions of key terms such as “wellbeing”, yet not necessarily a highly defined term as most people instinctively know what makes their lives better or happy. On the other hand, there are some scientists that are critical of the notion that most people know instinctively what gives them a sense of wellbeing. These critics claim that wellbeing can mean different things to different people. There are critics who do not believe that people necessarily have the ability to make an accurate assessment of their own wellbeing. The argument has been presented that people can become quite adaptable to less than favorable circumstances and conditions and will answer the questionnaire in a manner that is not completely honest. They may have become used to lowered living conditions and therefore would regard themselves inaccurately as having greater satisfaction than what they would normally report. Critics of this subjective study also have a problem with the lack of objective reference points. They believe it makes it difficult to compare people’s assessments of their own wellbeing (Van Bruggen, 2001, pg. 10-12).
When reviewing the answers to the questionnaires it would appear that there is a common thread in the way people respond to them. This allows us to believe many of the same things give people a sense of wellbeing, yet when the answers are examined more closely idiosyncrasies are revealed. When investigated in depth it appears there are differences in what determines wellbeing for each individual. It would be important to ask the right questions. This would require an understanding of what constitutes wellbeing. The question arises as to what human goals or needs are the building blocks for Subjective Wellbeing. If we want to understand what makes for wellbeing we must determine universal goals and needs. These goals and needs are supposed to represent the components of Subjective Wellbeing. If these goals and needs are fulfilled, then it is believed that the individual will score high on subjective wellbeing. If this is true then those needs and goals must be identified. It is not only the achievement of those goals and needs that contributes to wellbeing, but also the way they are achieved. Within the context of goals and needs are many questions, such as if there is greater satisfaction through them being met through personal achievement or luck (Van Bruggen, 2001, pg. 10-12).
One question researchers have regarding these Subjective Wellbeing studies is if a person’s sense of wellbeing is consistent and stable. Critics of Subjective Wellbeing question the study participants’ truthfulness and reliability. It has been determined that the respondents’ mood when taking the questionnaire can bring about an inaccurate outcome (Muldoon, Barger, Flory, and Manuck, 2003, pgs. 542-545). In a study conducted to determine the affect of mood on Subjective Wellbeing, Robinson (2000) states:
Although laboratory studies can highlight the effects of mood on processing and judgment, they cannot tell us about how people evaluate their daily lives. By measuring naturally occurring life events, mood states, and cognitive WB, the present investigation sought to fill this gap. In particular, the primary purpose of these studies was to understand the relation between daily experiences and cognitive WB. The results of cross-sectional and longitudinal designs reveal that the relation between life events and cognitive WB is entirely mediated by mood states.
Mood states appear to serve both reactive and prospective functions, and are therefore the key to cognitive WB change (page 10).
Another factor to be considered in Subjective Wellbeing studies is that of personality traits. Certain personality traits can influence the outcome of the questionnaire skewing the results. Chan, Ungvari, Shek, and Leung (2003) conducted a study to determine the quality of life of Chinese patients with schizophrenia. Their study was longitudinally based and they report this was the strength of their research. They claim this longitudinal design provided for greater accuracy because it regulated “influence of personal characteristics on dependent variables” (page 3). One of the limitations of their study is that the sample size was too small and they lacked a matched control group (page 3).
In considering personality traits affecting the outcome of Subjective Wellbeing studies the question of IQ has been explored. Researchers led by Professor Ian Deary at the Edinburgh University in Scotland conducted a study where they recruited 500 volunteers who agreed to have their IQ’s tested. The participants had their IQ’s tested at the age of 11 years old and then at the age of 80 years old. The results of this test were that there was no correlation between their IQ’s and overall life satisfaction. What the researchers did find was that health played a factor in life satisfaction but not the intelligence level of the individual. Oftentimes a higher IQ causes the individual to place more demands and higher expectations on themselves. This can set the individual up for disappointment and therefore lower Subjective Wellbeing scores (Deary, et. al. 2005, pgs. 141-142.)
An interesting model was created that did not address life satisfaction directly but nevertheless had an impact on Subjective Wellbeing. This model was developed to determine emotional-social intelligence (ESI) and was called the Bar-On model. This model measured behavior and performance and it proved to be consistent over time and highly accurate across cultures. Although the Bar-On model was not used specifically for measuring Subjective Wellbeing its results were very important and gave scientists information that can be applied in this area. What this model revealed were the areas in an individual that could use improvement in order to enhance overall life satisfaction. This model’s strength is its usefulness in many different areas and that it is highly teachable. It could be very useful in schools, for example. As with other models, longitudinal studies are required to obtain greater understanding and also acquire more accurate outcomes (Bar-On, R, 2005, pg. 20).
Frank (2005) states the methods used to measure Subjective Wellbeing oftentimes do a fairly good job of monitoring the experiences we have that we are consciously aware of but there are limitations. One of the limitations is that there may be other things that are more important to us than those experiences we are cognitively aware of. He gives the following example: Suppose we lived in parallel universes and in one of those universes you earned $100,000 a year and in the other one you earned $200,000 a year. Suppose the individual would feel equally happy in either universe. Then consider that the people who lived in the wealthier universe would be inclined to spend more money on keeping a cleaner environment resulting in a longer and happier life for everyone. Frank states it is obvious that people would be better off living in the richer universe. His point is that there may be other things that are more important to us that we are not consciously aware of at this time; therefore the results of Subjective Wellbeing measures may not be accurate (pgs. 69-79).
As we can see there are limitations to Subjective Wellbeing as a measure for life satisfaction, yet it has enough strength that it is still an important and useful emerging science.
Bar-On, R. (2005). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Issues in Emotional Intelligence, (1)4, pp. 1-28. In P. Fernandez-Berrocal and N. Extremera (Guest Editors), Special Issue on Emotional Intelligence. Psicothema, 17.
Chan, G.W.L.; Ungvari G.S.;, Shek, D.T.L.; Leung, J.P. (2003). Impact of deinstitutionalisation on the quality of life of Chinese patients with schizophrenia: A longitudinal pilot study. Hong Kong J Psychiatry, 13(4), pp. 2-5.
Deary, A.; Gow, A.; Whiteman, M.; Pattie, M.; Whalley, L.; and Starr, J. (Jul 2005). Lifetime intellectual function and satisfaction with life in old age: longitudinal cohort study. BMJ. 331, pp. 141–142.
Diener, E.; Suh, E.; and Oishi, S. Recent Findings on Subjective Well-Being (2005, pg. 1). Retrieved August 1, 2005 from http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener/hottopic/paper1.html
Emmons, R.A. and McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective wellbeing in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377-389.
Frank, R.H. (Spring, 2004). How not to buy happiness. Daedalus. Vol. 133, Issue 2, pp. 69-79.
Muldoon, M.F.; Barger, S.D.; Flory, J.D.; Manuck, S.B. (14 Feb. 1998). What are quality of life measurements measuring? BMJ, 316, pp. 542-545.
Robinson, M.D. (2000). The reactive and prospective functions of mood: Its role in linking daily experiences and cognitive well-being. Cognition and Emotion, 14(2), pp. 145-176.
Van Bruggen, A.C. (2001). Individual production of social well-being: an exploratory study. pp. 1-16. Retrieved August 1, 2005 from http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl