Subjective Well-Being Is Desirable, but Not the Summum Bonum

Publication Type

Conference Paper

Publication Date



Subjective well-being is a broad term that encompasses the various ways people evaluate their lives, including concepts such as life satisfaction, pleasant emotions, satisfaction with domains such as work and health, feelings of fulfillment and meaning, and low levels of unpleasant emotions. Subjective well-being (SWB) is one component of the good life because lives that are bereft of joy, affection, feelings of fulfillment and meaning, and laden with dissatisfaction, anger, and depression cannot be thought of as ideal, no matter how many other good qualities might be present. On the other hand, we argue that subjective well-being is not the sufficient and final good for which people strive, and to which all other desirable objects are merely a means. People want to be happy, but for the right reasons, and they want certain valued things even in the absence of feelings of happiness. Thus, we argue that subjective well-being is only one of several valued ends that comprise the good life. Social scientists have developed some understanding based on empirical studies of what leads people to evaluate their lives in positive terms. In very recent years, there has also been an analysis of the outcomes of subjective well-being, with the tentative finding that happiness helps people to be successful in some life tasks such as social relationships and earning money. However, there might be optimal levels of certain forms of SWB, such as pleasant emotions, that are only functional when in the long-term they are at submaximal levels – that is, SWB is likely to be dysfunctional if a person is locked into a state of intense positive emotions, and is not able to react to good and bad events. A challenge for future research is to determine whether it is possible to produce interventions to heighten happiness, which at the same time allow people to function effectively in the pursuit of valued social goals.


Social Psychology

Research Areas



Workshop on Well-Being

City or Country

Minneapolis, MN, USA

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