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A satisfied life

If you’re a bit confused about the many, many terms being thrown around related to happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, you’re not alone! There are so many ways to talk about this topic in positive psychology that it’s easy to get bogged down in ambiguity.

For laymen and those not involved in positive psychology research, the terms may seem interchangeable. However, there is a difference between these three terms and the constructs they represent.

If you’re interested in finding out exactly how they differ—and why life satisfaction is such an important topic in positive psychology—you’ve come to the right place.
What is the Meaning of Life Satisfaction?
Life satisfaction is a bit more complex than it seems; the term is sometimes used interchangeably with happiness, but they are indeed two separate concepts. Life satisfaction is the evaluation of one’s life as a whole, not simply one’s current level of happiness.

There are a few different working definitions of life satisfaction, including well-being and life satisfaction researcher Ed Diener’s:

“[A]n overall assessment of feelings and attitudes about one’s life at a particular point in time ranging from negative to positive” (Buetell, 2006).

Another popular definition of life satisfaction comes from another highly regarded life satisfaction scholar, Ruut Veenhoven:

“Life satisfaction is the degree to which a person positively evaluates the overall quality of his/her life as a whole. In other words, how much the person likes the life he/she leads” (1996).

Finally, Ellison and colleagues define life satisfaction as:

“[A] cognitive assessment of an underlying state thought to be relatively consistent and influenced by social factors” (1989).

Although there are small differences between the definitions, the underlying idea is the same: life satisfaction refers to an individual’s overall feelings about his or her life. In other words, life satisfaction is a global evaluation rather than one that is grounded at any specific point in time or in any specific domain.

Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Life Satisfaction?
Although related, happiness and life satisfaction are not the same thing.

Happiness is an immediate, in-the-moment experience; although enjoyable, it is ultimately fleeting. A healthy life certainly includes moments of happiness, but happiness alone usually does not make for a fulfilling and satisfying life.

According to Daniel Gilbert, professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the meaning of happiness is “anything we pleased” (Gilbert, 2009). It is a more transitory construct than life satisfaction, and can be triggered by any of a huge number of events, activities, or thoughts.

Life satisfaction is not only more stable and long-lived than happiness, it is also broader in scope. It is our general feeling about our life and how pleased we are with how it’s going. There are many factors that contribute to life satisfaction from a number of domains, including work, romantic relationships, relationships with family and friends, personal development, health and wellness, and others.

Another difference between happiness and life satisfaction is that the latter is not based on criterion that researchers deem to be important, but instead on your own cognitive judgments of the factors that you consider to be most valuable.

This is also the main difference between well-being and life satisfaction; there are many scales that produce great measures of a person’s well-being, but well-being is generally more strictly defined and based on specific variables.

One of the most popular theories of well-being is the PERMA model developed by Martin Seligman, one of the “founding fathers” of positive psychology (Seligman, 2011). His model is based on the idea that there are five main factors that contribute to well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. This model successfully explains differences in well-being, but it often fails to truly capture life satisfaction because it is more objective and less customizable based on what each individual values.

Life satisfaction measures are generally subjective, or based on the variables that an individual finds personally important in their own life. Your life satisfaction will not be determined based on a factor that you don’t actually find personally meaningful.

You may also hear another term tossed about with life satisfaction and happiness: quality of life. Quality of life is another measure of satisfaction or well-being, but it is associated with living conditions like the amount and quality of food, the state of one’s health, and the quality of one’s shelter (Veenhoven, 1996). Again, the difference between this related variable and life satisfaction is that life satisfaction is subjective and more inherently emotional. Someone who is homeless or terminally ill may well have a higher life satisfaction than a wealthy person in good health, because they may place importance on a very different set of variables than those involved in quality of life.

Life Satisfaction Theory and Psychology
There are two main types of theories about life satisfaction:

Bottom-up theories: life satisfaction as a result of satisfaction in the many domains of life.
Top-down theories: life satisfaction as an influencer of domain-specific satisfaction (Heady, Veenhoven, & Wearing, 1991).

Bottom-up theories hold that we experience satisfaction in many domains of life, like work, relationships, family and friends, personal development, and health and fitness. Our satisfaction with our lives in these areas combines to create our overall life satisfaction.

On the other hand, top-down theories state that our overall life satisfaction influences (or even determines) our life satisfaction in the many different domains. This debate is ongoing, but for most people it is enough to know that overall life satisfaction and satisfaction in the multiple domains of life are closely related.

The theories and discussions that are drawing more interest are those about how the mechanism of evaluating one’s life works. How do we decide that we are satisfied with our lives? How do we determine that we are not?

Researcher Jussi Suikkanen’s theory of life satisfaction is an intriguing one: a person is satisfied with her life when “a more informed and rational hypothetical version of her” would judge that her life fulfills her ideal life-plan (2011). This theory avoids one of the main issues that plagues the simpler version of this theory—that a person is happy when she judges that her life fulfills her ideal life-plan.

The reason this simpler version of the theory fails to truly capture life satisfaction is that it could inappropriately indicate life satisfaction in a person who is only temporarily or spontaneously happy but does not make any effort to consider how her life is going (Suikkanen, 2011). There’s certainly nothing wrong with being spontaneously happy, but it takes more than just feeling momentarily happy to have life satisfaction!

Research and Studies
Although the advent of positive psychology around 2000 spiked interest in constructs like happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, these topics have been popular with psychologists for several decades. As such, there is a good body of work in which to base our understanding of life satisfaction.

Perhaps the best place to start in learning about life satisfaction is with Ed Diener and his colleagues.

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