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Explaining Differences in Societal Levels of Happiness: Relative Standards, Need Fulfillment, Culture, and Evaluation Theory

by Ed Diener, Richard E Lucas
Journal of Happiness Studies ()
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This article addresses the question of which societal characteristics are likely to enhance subjective well-being. Empirical results bearing on four theo-ries are presented: needs theory, goals theory, relative standards models, and cultural approaches. The theories are to a degree compatible, rather than completely con-tradictory. There is empirical support for each of the theories, but also there are data contradicting a simple formulation of each model, and no approach can by itself explain all of the extant findings. For both applied and theoretical reasons, it is imper-ative that we determine the types of societal characteristics that enhance subjective well-being. In this vein a model called Evaluation Theory is proposed, in which SWB depends on people's evaluations of self-relevant information. Attention is selective and therefore the factors that determine its focus are likely to influence evaluations of events. Thus, appraisals are likely to be influenced by chronically accessible informa-tion, which in turn is influenced by the person's needs, goals, and culture. Currently, salient information is seen as being a key to life satisfaction judgments. The present paper describes numerous limitations in current research suggesting studies that will allow more definitive theories to emerge. One indicator of the quality of life of a society is the magnitude of hap-piness and life satisfaction that the citizens of that society experience. Researchers who study subjective social indicators take the utilitarian view that the good society is one that provides for the greatest happiness for the largest number of its citizens. Although we recognize that other criteria must be considered when evaluating quality of life (Diener et al., in press), we argue that other things being equal, the society with high subjective well-being is the preferable one. By understanding societal characteristics that exert an impact on feelings of subjective well-being (SWB), richer theories can be developed and ultimately better societies can be created. In the current article we examine several theories that have been pro-posed to explain societal differences in SWB. We argue that each of the theories is supported by evidence, but that none of the models explains all of the data. Furthermore, there are conceptual ambiguities in each

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