When researchers talk about objective and subjective wellbeing, it can often be quite confusing. Therefore, it is important to have some conceptual clarity when using those terms in any discussion but especially when those concepts overlap. Classic conceptions of wellbeing in ancient Greece, promoted by thinkers such as Aristotle, for example, emphasised a eudaimonic approach. This means that wellbeing was not associated with particular attributes individuals may or may not have, but more deeply, wellbeing was associated with being able to live an autonomous, self-determined life. That means that individuals take decisions based on their genuine goals, rather than trying to simply comply with external pressures. Now, is this an objective or a subjective conception of wellbeing?
You could argue both, saying that the autonomous pursuit of genuine goals is equivalent to well-being is a normative proposition, with a clearly objective quality, suggesting that there is one higher level aspect associated with wellbeing. On the other hand, what autonomous goals are for an individual will differ substantially, which suggests a subjective interpretation. For this reason, people treat eudaimonic conceptions of wellbeing usually as a separate approach to understanding it. It does suggest, however, that we do not simply need to ask the question whether we should emphasise objective or subjective conceptions of wellbeing, but instead, what different aspects of wellbeing can tell us about specific aspects of people’s lives.
So if we treat wellbeing not as either objective or subjective, but rather a complex concept integrating all of these, we may be able to advance our conceptual framework substantially. When we talk about purely objective wellbeing concepts, we commonly mean that there are certain factors which were presumed to be equivalent to a better life for individuals or societies. The Human Development Index is sometimes referred to as such a measure. In its simplest form, it suggests that societies with great economic development, higher levels of education, and higher life expectancy have higher levels of wellbeing. However, this does not capture the experiential side of wellbeing that we need to explore as well for a comprehensive understanding.
This is why we look at two conceptions that engage with people’s personal evaluations. Some researchers, like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, focus on the hedonistic evaluations of wellbeing. This means they emphasise the feeling of different moods in a particular moment. They focus on the affective feeling in a given instant. These feelings can be good or bad to a different extent. In this approach, a person’s wellbeing is the theoretical sum of all momentary feelings of good or bad affect. If someone feels better more often or to a greater extent over a time period, then they feel bad, they have positive wellbeing.
Although this approach clearly engages with people’s feelings and represents a form of subjectivity, some researchers– slightly confusingly, I admit– refer to it as objective happiness because it effectively turns something subjective into a directly measurable concept. This is achieved by sampling a set of moments and taking instantaneous measures of a person’s level of effect in those moments, to later sum them up. This is referred to as Experience Sampling method. Other researchers point out that approaches only emphasising measures of instantaneous feelings of good or bad effect may be missing something else. We may not pay attention to all our feelings in the same way.
And therefore, we need to deepen the subjective dimension to actually ask people how they themselves evaluate their lives, allowing them to subjectively express how good or bad they feel. Cognitive conceptions of wellbeing tend to, therefore, ask people directly. For example, how satisfied they are with their life overall or with particular domains thereof. They emphasise not the instant but the person’s overall evaluation of their situation. So which approach is the right one to understand wellbeing? You might have realised by now that they all play an important role. We may agree, normatively and from experience, that there are some objective factors that benefit wellbeing.
However, there are subjective differences between us and they manifest both in whether we feel good or bad about particular momentary experiences and how we evaluate our experiences more holistically. On top of this, well-being can be understood, although not simply, as the scent of our experiences and life circumstances but the way we lead our lives, which is what eudaimonic conceptions emphasise.