Subjective Well-Being According to Positive Psychology

By Sarah Stevenson, MA- The Tini Yogini

Are you interested in a life filled with purpose, contentment, good mental and physical health?

If you answered yes, then you have come to the right place. Positive psychology aims to increase well-being through recurrent positive affect, scarce negative affect, and cognitive appraisals like life satisfaction (Moore & Diener, 2019). There are things one can do to increase well-being and things one can do to avoid negative affect. Let’s take a deeper look at what the experts have to say about creating a fulfilling, meaningful life.

Happiness vs. Subjective Well-Being

It is important to note that happiness and well-being are not the same. Emotions can occur consciously or unconsciously and are influenced by biology, behavior, socio-cultural impact, and cognition (Compton & Hoffman, 2013). Happiness is one of the basic emotions felt by experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Many individuals strive for this type of happiness through exciting experiences like going on vacations, doing something adventurous like ziplining, buying a new car, or owning a beautiful purse (Shinde, 2017). This type of happiness is considered hedonic and is often mistaken for well-being. Hedonic happiness is temporary and fleeting, can change in an instant, and can cost you a lot of time, effort, and money. Subjective well-being has different characteristics.

Subjective Well-Being

From the positive psychology perspective, subjective well-being is both a cognitive and emotional appraisal regarding one’s satisfaction in life paired with the feeling of positive emotions. This type of well-being is eudemonic, consisting of personal fulfillment, mastery, positive emotion, and commitment to a higher calling (Seligman, 2002). Positive psychology scientifically studies aspects that effect subjective well-being.

Combining an understanding of the past, present, and future, one can start the journey of designing one’s personal idea of the good life (Seligman et al., 2013). But before a person can start that journey, they must know what it entails. Dr. Seligman broke down the basis of subjective well-being in a straightforward way with the acronym PERMA. Check out the infographic below.

Subjective Well-Being According to Different Psychological Theories

Now that it is clear what positive psychology has to say about subjective well-being, let’s turn to how other theorists contributed to the current theory of positive psychology:


Dr. Sigmund Freud is the father of this theory and believed that neurosis stems from one’s unconscious desires and the conflict that occurs with the id (instinct), ego (pleasure-driven), and superego (values, compromise). Therapists use talk therapy to eliminate suffering by bringing unconscious thoughts to conscious awareness. Dr. Carl Jung, a colleague of Freud’s and father of analytical psychology, used talk therapy but broadened the psychoanalytic theory by including archetypes (universal patterns) and the collective unconscious (common unconscious impulses) to integrate more meaning into one’s life. According to psychoanalysis, subjective well-being is the lack of suffering from neurosis and the revelation and integration of unconscious thoughts and behaviors to reveal a deeper understanding of the self and bring about balance. (Bachrach et al., 1991). Psychoanalysis contributed to the meaning portion of positive psychology’s perspective on subjective well-being.


Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and B.F. Skinner focused on the influence environment has on one’s behavior, also known as conditioning (Krapfl, 2016). Very little attention is placed on emotions and cognitions because, according to the behaviorist, those influences cannot be observed and are considered too subjective. A behaviorist can increase subjective well-being by eliminating problematic behaviors and increasing positive pro-social behaviors (Morris et al., 2013). This aligns with positive psychology’s perspective on subjective well-being with creating positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, finding meaning and purpose and accomplishments.

Humanistic Psychology

This psychological theory responded to psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are the two key figures in developing humanistic psychology. According to the humanistic view, subjective well-being is the self-actualized individual. A person that is continually working towards a life complete with the fulfillment of a sense of physical health, safety, belonging, and love that leads to an altruistic sense of being (Schneider et al., 2015). Humanistic psychology is very similar to positive psychology in its definition of subjective well-being in that it focuses on multi-dimensional characteristics in order to reach self-actualization.

Cognitive Psychology

Ulric Neisser is the father of cognitive psychology, believing that observable behavior is influenced by memory, reasoning, and perception of the external world (Chung & Highland, 2012). The cognitive psychology perspective looks at subjective well-being like the positive psychology perspective in the belief that it changes one’s affect when you change negative appraisals. Swapping negative thoughts for positive ones can change one’s world.

How to measure one’s well-being and happiness?

Researchers have found through scientific study how to measure a person’s level of well-being and have developed tests so individuals can see where they stand on the scale. Try out some of these free tests that can give insight into your level of well-being so you can learn your strengths and see what you need to work on:

The VIA Character Strength Survey: Scientific study that reveals a person’s character strengths. Knowing one’s character strengths can benefit personal relationships, decrease stress, increase well-being, and help individuals find purpose and achieve personal goals (VIA Institute on Character, 2017).

The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: Questionnaire designed to give one an idea of their current level of psychological well-being. The website also offers people techniques to increase happiness and psychological well-being (Hills & Argyle, 2002).

How does social media impact your subjective well-being?

According to research, over 81% of teenagers and 69% of adults in the United States use social media (Smith, 2017). This means more than half of the people in the U.S. are susceptible to the positive and negative effects that social media has on one’s subjective well-being. Social media can allow people to stay connected to friends and family that do not live close, which has been very beneficial to well-being during the pandemic (Koh & Liew, 2020). Social media has also heightened awareness of social justice issues concerning minorities and women. Some great examples are the #metoo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, which benefits well-being by giving a person a sense of belonging and increasing meaning and purpose in one’s life (Auxier, 2020; Goodyear & Armour, 2019). There are ways social media harms one’s subjective wellbeing, though and controlling the amount of time and energy into social media must be monitored for well-being (Smith, 2017).

Have you ever woken up to see a video of your best friend at a concert with a group of friends you’ve never met and feel offended and left out of the fun?

You experienced the fear of missing out. FOMO is a popular acronym used to describe the feeling one gets when they see pictures of activities that others are doing without them (Oxford University Press, 2021). Researchers have found the negative emotions of fear, anxiety, and depression linked to this fear of missing out as well as suicidal ideations, drug and alcohol abuse and risk-taking behaviors (Gupta & Sharma, 2021).  

Have you ever noticed your best friend’s pictures look better on Instagram than she looks in real life?

Social media gives an individual the ability to place a false filter on oneself and their life. People tend only to post positive experiences to increase the number of likes they will receive on the post. These filtered posts give social media followers the view that others have perfect lives, which causes people to strive for this false perfection. Feelings of envy, depression, and anxiety are linked to this false reality and can have adverse physical and mental effects on one’s health (Naslund et al., 2020).

Do you spend more time with online friends than you do with real-life relationships?

When people put more time and energy into their social media account than they put into their real-life relationships, they can risk losing proper social skills. Lack of social skills can cause a person to appear socially awkward in real life, which is associated with anxiety, depression, and fear. Putting too much time into social media can also cause a person to feel isolated and lonely (Elder, 2017). More Facebook friends do not equal happiness.

Have you ever been harassed online?

Online bullying can be done in public when a person puts a harassing or negative comment on a post or in private by sending someone a threatening private message. Public and private bullying harm an individual, especially when it is done to an adolescent who is in the process of identity development (Carmerini et al., 2020). Cyberbullying is associated with depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and self-blame (Nixon, 2014).

Action Steps to Increase Subjective Well-Being

Here are activities you can put into practice today that increases subjective well-being:

Final Thoughts on Subjective Well-Being

In closing, I would like to highlight that the capacity for human change is a clear and present detail that allows one to evolve throughout a lifetime (Seligman et al., 2013). Regardless of your current state of well-being, there is hope for the future in that you can implement time-tested actions to create a life of authentic happiness. Courage, then, is what you must arm yourself with to begin this journey to subjective well-being.

What Do YOU Think?

How did you stack up in the subjective well-being department? What are your character strengths and are you using them in you current life? What are some things you would like to work on now that you know what it takes to increase your subjective well-being?


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By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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