This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 09 table of contents.


Most people have a goal of being happy in life. Psychologists call happiness subjective well-being (SWB), and typically it is based on self-report, so a synonymous phrase would be self-reported happiness or self-reported life satisfaction. University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener has been collecting such data for decades using a simple 5-question procedure. Most people are willing to indicate on a questionnaire how happy they are with life, and the results reveal some consistent patterns.

What does and does not correlate with happiness?

Age does not matter. Children, young adults, and older people are happy or unhappy in approximately the same proportions, and to the same degree.

Education and IQ does not matter. People of varying education and varying scores on so-called intelligence tests are not systematically different in happiness.

Wealth, beyond a moderate level, does not matter. People are happier if they are not impoverished, but being very wealthy does not make people happier than being moderately well-to-do.

So—what does matter? In a survey of University of Illinois students by Diener and Seligman (2002), having friends correlated with subjective well-being. Studies of married couples show that those in good relationships are happier. People who report good relationships with their families and time spent with family members report greater happiness. And people who have a satisfying spiritual life report greater happiness.

How might happiness have a "set point"? What events lowered happiness for five years?

The idea of a hedonic control system for pleasure and pain suggests that constant joy is not a realistic goal. Brickman and Campbell (1971) argued that happiness has a set point similar to fat deposition; each person has a characteristic level, and a major happiness-inducing event such as winning a lottery or getting married can result in a temporary lift for a few months, but after that, a person typically returns to their "set point" for happiness. More recent research by Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener (2003 and 2004) showed that, of negative events, only death of a spouse and loss of a job produced a lower level of happiness that was not erased after five years.

Which people living in poor conditions were unhappy?

In general, personal relationships appear to make more difference than living conditions.

Are people living in harsher conditions less happy than others? The answer seems to be that sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. For example, we found that the African Maasai are relatively happy, even though they live in dung huts without indoor plumbing or electricity, and the Inuit of Northern Greenland are relative satisfied with their lives despite living in a very harsh climate (Biswas-Diener, Vittersų, and Diener, 2004). However, we have found that street prostitutes, the homeless, and people in mental hospitals are unhappy, far below neutral, even when their conditions have persisted over some period of time (e.g., Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2001). Perhaps such social variables as lack of respect and lack of trusted friends make these conditions more persistently difficult than poverty. This idea can be substantiated by the fact that impoverished individuals in the slums of Calcutta, who live in shacks with their families, score in the positive zone on life satisfaction.

What was true of the "happiest individuals"?

When we examined the characteristics of the happiest individuals, we found without exception that they reported strongly positive social relationships (Diener & Seligman, 2002). (Diener and Oishi, 2004)

Martin E. P. Selgiman of the University of Pennsylvania now specializes in the study of what makes people happy. His book on the subject became a bestseller, and Seligman himself was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. The American Psychological Association devoted an issue of its flagship journal American Psychologist to Seligman's new discipline of positive psychology in 2000. An updated version of the article is on the web at this address:

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