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Subjective Well-Being

Self-protective Strategies, Personality And Emotion Regulation, Sense Of Control

‘‘Do people get less happy as they get older?’’ This question has been addressed by researchers who focus on aging and subjective well-being (SWB). SWB is used to describe the subjective experience, as opposed to the objective conditions, of life (Okun and Stock). What matters most in this regard is how people perceive life rather than the actual circumstances of their lives. SWB has both an affective (emotional) and a cognitive (mental) component (Diener et al.).

The affective component of SWB involves people’s moods and emotions that represent their feelings about their current experiences. If one were to inventory the amounts of positive affect and negative affect that a person experienced, one could arrive at an index of happiness by subtracting the amount of negative affect from the amount of positive affect. Happiness refers to the degree to which positive affect exceeds negative affect. The cognitive component of SWB is primarily an evaluation (or mental judgment) concerning how well one’s life has turned out. This older women seems to be experiencing subjective well-being during a pleasant phone conversation. (Photo copyright © Suzanne Khalil.) This judgment reflects the degree to which people are satisfied with their lives (Okun and Stock).

How is SWB measured? Researchers tend to rely upon self-reports in response to questions or statements. A typical statement of life satisfaction is ‘‘If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.’’ Typical questions used to assess positive and negative affect are respectively: ‘‘During the past few weeks did you ever feel pleased about having accomplished something?’’ and ‘‘During the past few weeks did you ever feel upset because someone criticized you?’’

People generally agree that happiness for other people peaks in middle age. Why do many people judge the later years to be less happy for other people? What often comes to mind when considering old age is the loss of family, friends, money, career, health, activity, and competence. Simply put, the ratio of gains to losses appears to be less favorable as people age (Baltes and Baltes). However, contrary to the popular belief that ‘‘people get less happy as they get older,’’ age is unrelated to SWB (Diener et al.). Most people maintain their SWB unless their income and health diminish below a critical threshold. That the losses associated with aging do not adversely affect the SWB of older adults has been labeled ‘‘the paradox of well-being’’ (Filipp). How is this paradox of well-being explained? One class of explanations is that older people maintain a relatively happy existence by employing self-protective strategies (Brandtstädter and Greve).

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4