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Subjective Well-Being


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 peoples 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 ones life has turned out. 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).

Self-protective strategies

Social downgrading is a self-protective strategy that involves the comparison of oneself with less fortunate individuals. Older adults believe that other peoples problems are more serious than their own across several domains, such as children, fitness, and finances (Heckhausen and Brim). One type of comparison is a downward social comparison. For example, an older woman who uses a cane may compare herself with an older woman who is confined to a wheelchair. A second kind of comparison (a temporal comparison) involves evaluating ones present circumstances against past conditions. For example, an older man who is struggling financially might compare his current situation with the economic hardship that he endured in the Great Depression.

In addition to comparisons, older people may maintain their SWB by minimizing the gap between their ideal and actual selves. Older people perceive their actual and ideal selves to be much more closely aligned than younger people do. Finally, older people may protect themselves by shuffling their priorities. Flexible goal attainmentthe willingness to adjust ones goals in order to accommodate changing circumstancesincreases with age (Brandtstädter and Greve).

Personality and emotion regulation

A second class of explanations for the paradox of SWB focuses on personality dispositions and emotion regulation strategies. Extraversion and neuroticism are stable across the adult years, and happy people are low on neuroticism and high on extraversion. From the dispositional perspective, age is irrelevant; it is individual differences in personality that contribute to variation in SWB.

In contrast, Carstensen offers a developmental explanation for why older people maintain their SWB. She found that as people age, their goals related to the self shift from developing an identity to regulating emotions. Because of the focus on emotion regulation, older adults are posited to be more selective in choosing members of their social networks. They are less likely than younger adults to have negative social exchanges. Older adults appear to be better than younger adults at regulating their emotions (Carstensen). For example, older couples appear to be more adept than younger couples at preventing arguments from escalating. Having a positive spousal relationship can buffer the stressors that accompany aging.

Sense of control

A third class of explanations for the paradox of SWB focuses on ones sense of control. Having a sense of control over ones life circumstances is a strong predictor of SWB (DeNeve and Cooper). Older people can exert control over their world either by selectively investing their resources and time to pursue their goals (selective primary control) or by minimizing the negative effects of losses (compensatory secondary control) (Schulz and Heckhausen). Older adults can increase their SWB by engaging in activities that promote either selective primary control or compensatory secondary control. Selective primary control can be enhanced by engaging in age-appropriate developmental tasks (e.g., developing a leisure repertoire). An example of a compensatory secondary control strategy is to discount the importance of activities that must be forsaken.

To age well, it is important for people to be happy and satisfied with their lives (Baltes and Baltes). Perhaps part of the reason why wisdom is related to SWB is that older people have learned that happiness often eludes those who strive to obtain it directly. Instead, happiness is best obtained as a by-product of striving to obtain other goals that are within reach, enjoyable, and supported by trustworthy others (McGregor and Little).

Suzanne L. Khalil Morris A. Okun

See also Emotion; Quality of Life; Philosophical and Ethical Dimensions.


Baltes, P. B., and Baltes, M. M. Successful Aging: A Psychological Model. In Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Edited by P. B. Baltes and M. M. Baltes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pages 134.

BrandtstÄdter, J., and Greve, W. The Aging Self: Stabilizing and Protective Processes. Developmental Review 14, no. 1 (1994): 5280.

Carstensen, L. L. Motivation for Social Contact Across the Life-Span: A Theory of Socioemotional Selectivity. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 40. Edited by J. Jacobs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Pages 209254.

DeNeve, K. M., and Cooper, H. The Happy Personality: A Meta-analysis of 137 Personality Traits and Subjective Well-Being. Psychological Bulletin 124, no. 2 (1998): 197229.

Diener, E.; Suh, E. M.; Lucas, R. E.; and Smith, H. L. Subjective Well-being: Three Decades of Progress. Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 2(1999): 276302.

Filipp, S. H. Motivation and Emotion. In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 4th ed. Edited by J. E. Birren and K. W. Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 218235.

Heckhausen, J., and Brim, O. G. Perceived Problems for Self and Others: Self-Protection by Social Downgrading Throughout Adulthood. Psychology and Aging 12, no. 4 (1997): 610619.

McGregor, I., and Little, B. R. Personal Projects, Happiness, and Meaning: On Doing Well and Being Yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 2 (1998): 494512.

Okun, M. A., and Stock, W. A. Correlates and Components of Subjective Well-being Among the Elderly. Journal of Applied Gerontology 6, no. 1 (1987): 95112.

Schulz, R., and Heckhausen, J. A Life-Span Model of Successful Aging. American Psychologist 51, no. 7 (1996): 702714.

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