Blog #33 – Life satisfaction
We have touched on this topic before, but it is important to pay specific attention to the distinction between happiness and life satisfaction, as it relates to well-being.
In early posts in this series, we highlighted the potential for disappointment if an individual’s sole strategy for boosting their well-being is to focus on increasing their happiness. Yes, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happier and seeking out ways to achieve that, but as Martin Seligman pointed out when discussing his idea of the three happy lives, happiness is an emotion, and emotions by their nature are fleeting and temporary – positive emotions are highly enjoyable as we experience them, but they do not last for long.
When psychologists speak of ‘subjective well-being’, they are referring to a construct that incorporates both affective and cognitive elements. The affective element includes our feelings, the emotional side of our appraisals, while the cognitive element is more concerned with how we think. Of course, it is not possible to separate the two entirely, but the cognitive element can be more rational than its affective counterpart, but crucially for the purpose of today’s post, it is under this heading that we address life satisfaction. Reflecting upon your life and assessing the extent to which you are satisfied with your circumstances at any given time is first and foremost a cognitive process. Yes, the outcome of that process will impact upon how you feel, but before that point comes you must ‘decide’ how satisfied you are with your life.
This is not merely a technicality. On the contrary, the distinction matters, as the two may diverge. Consider earlier posts examining the relationship between money and well-being. There is much published research which tells us that more money will correlate with increased happiness up to the point where you achieve a certain level of material comfort, but beyond that, money appears to make an insignificant impact, statistically speaking. However, some findings in the same body of work tell us that where money can make a difference is with regard to how we evaluate our life. In essence, more money beyond a certain point will not make us happier, but it can continue to boost life satisfaction. It is important to state here that I am very specifically using the word ‘can’ as opposed to ‘will’. For one thing, there are no guarantees, and such research can only ever identify trends, as opposed to cast-iron certainties. As well as that, any inspection of the existing academic literature will highlight that we do not have unanimity on this point. Some research has found that money beyond a certain point makes little impact across the board, but other studies report the ongoing positive correlation vis-à-vis life evaluation and satisfaction. There can be any number of moderating factors that account for these differences, such as personality, but this merely points to the nature of research as an ongoing process, one that continues to address open questions.
However, at this point we know how different these affective and cognitive aspects of our experience can be, and how what works for one may not work for the other.
Highlighting the importance of the distinction, Sonya Lyubomirsky and Heidi Lepper, in a paper published in 1999 in the journal Social Indicators Research, stressed that an individual may identify as being a very happy person while only perceiving themselves as having a somewhat happy life, while another individual may regard themselves as being generally unhappy despite reporting feeling positive affect during the time periods specified by relevant questionnaires. Against this backdrop, we can see that the affective and cognitive elements involved in subjective well-being are at least somewhat distinct, and we cannot hope to achieve a greater understanding of the area without appreciating that distinction.
Ed Diener, Robert Emmons, Randy Larsen, and Sharon Griffin published the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) in 1985, specifically to measure the cognitive element attached to subjective well-being. As with Lyubomirsky and Lepper’s later observations, they emphasise the subjective element, pointing out that individuals themselves will judge to what extent they experience happiness or life satisfaction, and stress that life satisfaction refers to the judgements people make when assessing whether their life circumstances compare favourably or otherwise to what is regarded as an appropriate standard.
It is all well and good understanding that we need to distinguish between the affective and cognitive elements of subjective well-being, but what can we then look to do with that knowledge? In other words, when looking at the cognitive side of the equation, to what extent can we look to boost life satisfaction? As we have established previously and mentioned again earlier today, more money can impact positively on life appraisal, but it would be unnecessarily restricting to put all your eggs in that basket. Aside from anything else, it perhaps makes more sense to seek out activities and experiences that may benefit both affective and cognitive elements, and we know that money can only do so much for the emotional side of subjective well-being.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, in an article published on the Psychology Today website in 2012 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/making-change/201205/the-right-questions-can-increase-life-satisfaction), addressed this question by, in turn, highlighting a number of questions people can look to ask themselves.
Among those questions she posed:
Do you try new experiences?
Do you try your hardest in everything you do?
Do you enjoy time spending time with other people?
In your everyday interactions, do you approach people with a desire to get along?
Are you easily upset by different kinds of problems?
The logic is that the answers you give to those questions matter, and that if perhaps you answer in the negative, if you work to change that, doing so may well yield a positive dividend.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.