THE BLOG
07/29/2015 12:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Measuring Your Happiness Using the Most Important Concept in Positive Psychology

Subjective well-being is the primary way Positive Psychology researchers have defined and measured people's happiness and well-being.

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Subjective well-being is perhaps the most important concept in Positive Psychology. Simply put, subjective well-being is defined as your evaluations of a) your own life, and b) your moods and emotions-hence the label "subjective." 1

Subjective well-being is the primary way Positive Psychology researchers have defined and measured people's happiness and well-being.

In this latest article in our article series on the Science behind Well-being, I'll talk about the three parts of subjective well-being, and how you can track your own subjective well-being.

The 3 Parts of Subjective Well-Being

Subjective well-being consists of three parts: positive affect, negative affect and life satisfaction.

The first two parts of subjective well-being, positive affect and negative affect, are basically your emotions and moods. Affect reflects the basic and immediate experiences in your life. So, positive emotions and moods, and negative emotions and moods.

The third part of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, is the evaluation of your life as a whole.2 Are you satisfied with your life? How are the conditions of your life? Are you close to your ideal life? Have you gotten the important things you want in life? Would you change things about your life? These are allᅡᅠquestions aimedᅡᅠto assess life-satisfaction.

It is important to note that life satisfaction is more than the sum of your emotional well-being over a period of time. For instance, habitually happy individuals can be very satisfied with their overall education even though they feel only moderately satisfied with theᅡᅠspecific parts of it, e.g.ᅡᅠtextbooks or classes.3

This is because the mental process through which peopleᅡᅠjudge life satisfaction is an idiosyncratic process in whichᅡᅠinformation is selectively remembered. The process may also be swayed by transient factors such as the person's mood or recent events. Unstable and fickle, how we come up with life satisfactionᅡᅠoften isn't rational.

Measuring your Subjective Well-Being

Tracking your own subjective well-being can be very powerful, if you keep alongside a journal of your life's events. You can learn about how your life satisfaction and emotions fluctuate with the cycles of life, about which events affect you, and how they affect you.

Keep it up for some time and you will see trends emerge, and be able to adjust your activities in order to maximize positive affect and life satisfaction, and minimize negative affect.

If you want the highest-quality measures, most researchers use the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) to measure life satisfaction, and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) to measure positive and negative affect. These are no pop psychology quizzes. If you decide to only measure your subjective well-being now and then, you could use the more time-consuming scales above.

An interesting alternative, however, is to track your positive and negative affect throughout the day, once every half-an-hour or once every hour, and your life satisfaction at the end of each day. By diving into the details, you'll get a clearer understanding of which specific activities give you the mostᅡᅠemotional well-being.

One way you can do this is to set alarms on your phone to go off at 30 minute intervals. To measure your affect, you can use a simple 0 to 3 scale to the questions, "Are you feeling positive/negative emotions right now?" -- 0: notᅡᅠat all; 1: a little; 2:ᅡᅠmoderately; 3:ᅡᅠstrongly.

Input a number each for your positive affect and negative affect, and write down a word or sentenceᅡᅠdescribing what you are doing at that time. You can also elaborate on the specificᅡᅠpositive or negative emotion you are feeling.

For the purpose of tracking, itᅡᅠis useful to have categories such as "working," "doing housework," "socializing," etc., when you are describing what you are doing. Make up your own categories to suit the activitiesᅡᅠof your life, and be as detailed as you need.

At the end of the day, write down your answer to, "How satisfied are you with your life?" keeping in mind the questions used to describe life satisfaction above. Use this scale:ᅡᅠ7: Very satisfied;ᅡᅠ6: Moderately satisfied; 5: Slightly satisfied; 4: Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; 3: Slightly dissatisfied; 2: Moderately dissatisfied; 1: Very dissatisfied. Also write a sentence or two about your day.

Maintain this regimen for a few weeks, then take a look at the trends that have emerged. Whichᅡᅠactivities make you happy; whichᅡᅠactivities make you unhappy? Which days are you the most satisfied with your life?

And finally, with what you know, what can you change to make your life better?

This article is part of a series about the Science Behind Well-being. For more, visit David's website, Living Meanings.