An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2004

The psychology of subjective well-being

Robert Biswas-Diener, Ed Diener, and Maya Tamir

Robert Biswas-Diener, who teaches in the psychology department at the University of Oregon, has conducted a number of studies of happiness, including among the Maasai in Kenya and the slum dwellers in Calcutta.

Ed Diener, Alumni Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, is past president of the International Society of Quality of Life Studies and of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. He is editor of the “Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Maya Tamir is a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

In the last few decades there has been something of a revolution in the scientific study of happiness.1 A combination of radical new thinking and sophisticated methodology has allowed psychologists to add substantially to our understanding of this concept that has historically been the domain of philosophers and theologians. For the first time, we are able to measure happiness. And we have learned much about the biological and social factors that contribute to happiness. Perhaps just as important, we have debunked many myths about it– such as that young people are happy and the elderly are sad, or that money is the secret to it. Above all, we have begun to learn the lesson that happiness is more than an emotional pleasantry–that it is a psychological tonic that promotes well-being in many domains of life.

The importance of using the scientific method in the study of happiness can be illustrated by referring to the work of Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Russell, in his analysis of subjective well-being in The Conquest of Happiness, maintained that the majority of people are unhappy, in part because they compare themselves to others who appear superior to them. However, contemporary researchers have discovered that most people, at least in modern Western nations, consider themselves to be happy. Further- . . .


  • 1For an in-depth study of the research on subjective well-being, see Ed Diener, “Subjective Well-Being,” Psychological Bulletin 95 (1984): 542–575; Ed Diener, Eunkook M. Suh, Richard E. Lucas, and Heidi L. Smith, “Subjective WellBeing: Three Decades of Progress,” Psychological Bulletin 125 (1999): 276–302; Ed Diener and Eunkook M. Suh, eds., Culture and Subjective Well-Being (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000); and Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz, eds., Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).
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