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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

A Study on Happiness: Subjective Well-Being

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults

Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?

This is an example of a subjective well-being question that psychologists use to measure a person's level of happiness. Subjective well-being (SWB) considers 3 areas:

  1. Life satisfaction

  2. Specific role domains in our work and family

  3. Affective experiences - our negative or positive reactions to life circumstances

By studying the research conducted on SWB over the past several decades, we have learned that it incorporates specific components: demographics, genes, personality, events, and circumstances. Additionally, there are variables within each component, such as material wealth, educational background, social relationships and age that fall under the demographics component. By understanding the different components and variables of SWB as it pertains to our lives, we can use the lens of SWB as a tool to measure our own level of happiness.

Genetics play a 40-50% role in individual differences; therefore, understanding our family history can provide insight into our current challenges and struggles and the impact of past experiences on our lives today.

It is key to examine how past events and experiences have manifested in our everyday lives. Shared vs non-shared environmental experiences affect individuals differently. For example, a traumatic childhood environment can affect the mental health of an adult. Siblings who share the same living environment may be able to cope with traumatic life events differently; one may struggle while the other builds resilience. In therapy, the approach is to focus on identifying a pattern of our affective responses to life experiences. One way to work on this is by being aware of how we respond to situations throughout the day. Journaling and logging these reactions during the course of a day is an activity designed to help us become more reflective. This creative writing approach is one way to reduce memory bias pertaining to happiness by allowing us to be truly reflective on our emotions and how our behaviors and actions contribute to our mood. By engaging in this exercise, we can pinpoint patterns in our behavior and therefore pivot our approach. This ultimately helps us to look closer at our values which are connected to our behaviors.

The role of work and family speaks to our social relationships. Research has found that when examining subjective well-being, we have more positive affective responses to negative life events when we perceive that we have a strong support network. Perception therefore plays a powerful role in our ability to be resilient, courageous, and persistent during difficult moments in our lives. Issues found in intimate relationships can take many forms. The quality of love can change, or an individual may never be able to find true love or sustain it, or perhaps the idea of finding love can be so murky that an individual may have anxiety just thinking about it. Many of these problems speak to attachment issues which is an entire blog topic in itself!

Age is another variable to subjective well-being, as many individuals feel frustration for not achieving life goals at a certain age. They often express disappointment in this realization. This blog on expectations touches on milestone birthdays and healthy ways to embrace transitional times in our lives.

All subjective well-being components and variables need to be considered as parts to a whole in order to measure happiness of an individual.

It is not enough to merely seek happiness or change our life's circumstances but rather, we must fully examine the reality of our situation in order to experience happiness in a sustainable way. One aspect cannot be worked on without the other aspects. An overemphasis on identifying strengths in our character without looking at the deficits can stifle positive change. A persistent focus on working towards a growth mindset without considering the barriers will not aid in an ability to grow as an individual. For example, practicing gratitude exercises when there are deeper issues that cause negative thinking will ultimately be an exercise in futility. An overemphasis on positive emotions without acknowledging negative emotions is not accepting our basic humanness. Subjective well-being, accompanying research, and interventions need to incorporate the reality of our situations as being the co-existence of positive and negative. A happy balance is only achieved when we acknowledge the negative, face our struggles, and then use a positive mindset to work through the challenge. As always, the most effective way to understand our barriers to experiencing true happiness is through reflection which can be achieved by keeping a daily journal, meditation, art therapy, or by seeking professional help.


Griffin, P.W. & Ward, P.M (2016). Happiness and subjective well-being. In H.S. Friedman

(Ed.), Encyclopedia of mental health: Vol. 2. (2nd ed., pp. 285-293). Academic Press.



For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:


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