Critically evaluate socio-economic and cultural predictors of psychological well-being

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Last updated: March 29, 2019

Over recent years, a shift has occurred in the study of optimal human functioning from illness (or the lack of it) to the more positive view of what it means to be well (Diener, Suh, Lucas and Smith, 1999).

Early studies that examined demographic factors produced little support in terms of their predictive value of well-being. However recent investigations, which have tested socio-economic and cultural variables using the tradition of Subjective Well Being (SWB), have offered more compelling evidence.Nevertheless, methodological limitations as well as a lack of theoretical underpinnings within the SWB tradition indicate a need for more comprehensive and complimentary measurements, as well as a more integrated model of well-being that combines the tradition of SWB, with the more theoretically derived tradition of Psychological Well-Being (PWB). Such a typological model could go some way to reflecting a more encompassing view of human well-being. Historically, the major approach used to understand positive human functioning has been through the study of illness.

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However, the emphasis has shifted more recently to investigations of what it means to be well, since more individuals are well than ill (Diener et al. , 1999). Initially, such studies concentrated on demographic features such as age, gender, marriage education etc, however these variables were shown to have minimal associations with well-being (Campbell, Converse and Rogers, 1976, cf. Diener, et al. , 1999).

Thus, more external predictors of well-being, such as socio-economics and culture have been examined using the tradition of Subjective Well Being (SWB).SWB employs self-reports to measure an individual’s subjective response to how good their life is in terms of [overall] life satisfaction (Campbell et al, 1976, cf. Keyes, Ryff and Shmotkin, 2002), domain specific satisfaction, such as work, income, social relationships etc (Andrews, 1991; Diener, 1984, cf. Ryff and Keyes, 1995), and happiness (the balance between positive and negative affect, Bradburn, 1969, cf. Keyes et al. , 2002). Life satisfaction responses are long-term cognitive evaluations of one’s life (Keyes et al.

, 2002), whereas happiness responses are more immediate emotional evaluations (Diener et al. 1999).Since the SWB tradition does not have established theoretical underpinnings, researchers have juxtaposed such measures of satisfaction and happiness with theories of need fulfilment and comparison standards in order to add weight to SWB findings in connection with socio-economic aspects of poor and wealthy nations. For instance, Oishi, Diener, Lucas and Suh (1999) employed Maslow’s (1970) need gratification theory, which states that basic physiological needs (food, thirst) and safety needs (security, protection) must be fulfilled before higher needs (love, esteem and self-actualisation) can be realised.Consequently, financial satisfaction should be more relevant to levels of SWB in poor nations than in wealthy nations, since poor nations are more inclined to lack financial security. Oishi, et al.

(1999) found that financial satisfaction does indeed play a more significant role in poor nations than in wealthy nations, in terms of overall life satisfaction. Furthermore, results from a cross-cultural meta-analysis of 55 nations conducted by Diener, Diener and Diener (1995) revealed similar findings even when basic needs were met, which implies that income is important for SWB beyond merely fulfilling basic needs.However Myers (2000) argues that among nations with a gross national product (GNP) of more than approximately $8,000 per capita, the significance of income to well-being diminishes, which suggests from a need gratification perspective that beyond an optimum point of financial security, higher needs such as esteem appear to become more important. In fact Diener and Biswas-Diener (2000) argue that when materialistic value is placed on money it could in fact be detrimental to happiness. Potential associations between SWB levels and income growth have also been investigated using a relative standards model (Diener et al. 1995). However, one’s past financial position does not appear to influence SWB.This could be because, as proposed by adaptation theory (Brickman and Campbell, 1971, cf.

Diener, 2000) individuals adapt to their current financial situation and restructure their goals, therefore income growth per say is not of importance to levels of SWB over the long term. Moreover, high economic growth has been shown to lead to lower SWB, possibly because it is accompanied by other social factors such as “employment moves and family separation” (Diener et al, 1993, cited in Diener et al. 1995, p852). Diener et al, (1995) also used a social comparison model to examine the effects on SWB of having wealthy/poor neighbouring countries (using measures of per capita Gross Domestic Product).

They found that national economic comparisons are not detrimental to levels of SWB, and in fact may be psychologically beneficial if the neighbouring country has other constructive qualities that give individuals aspirational hope for the future (Diener et al. , 1995).The above research offers compelling evidence that individual and national economy plays a role in subjective well-being. However, several points of contention should also be considered. Firstly, although SWB research tends to use large sample groups, the almost exclusive use of college students is not wholly representative, since even in poor nations college students are likely to at least have basic needs met (Diener et al. , 1995).

Secondly, the use of Maslow’s (1970) need gratification theory does not offer a comprehensive understanding of the above findings.For example, although wealthier nations are much happier than poor nations, in the wealthy nations there are only minor variations of SWB levels between the wealthier and poorer individuals, which cannot be explained by Maslow’s model (Diener, et al, 1999). Thirdly, if, according to Maslow’s (1970) theory, well-being results from fulfilment of needs and goals, the implication is that happiness is an end state. However, it can be argued that the process of engaging in an activity that is both interesting and matches one’s level of skill (a state of “flow”) can actually create happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, cf.Snyder and Lopez, 2002). Thus, need fulfilment and comparison standards models may not be sufficient to explain within nation variations of well-being in connection with socio-economic factors. There is also a possibility that socio-cultural issues such as human rights contribute to the fact that people in the wealthiest nations tend to show the highest levels of SWB. For example, Diener et al.

, (1995) found that nations with less human rights violations showed higher levels of SWB.This implies that having more rights allows individuals more freedom of choice to follow life goals beyond mere basic safety needs, and in wealthier nations, money facilitates the achievement of such goals (Diener et al. , 1995). The salience of needs and values as moderators to well being has also been examined across cultures using Oishi et al’s (1999) value as a moderator model, which proposes that predictors of life satisfaction vary across cultures depending on salient cultural values.Suh, Diener, Oishi ; Triandis (1998) utilized the model to investigate the value of emotions in individualist versus collectivist cultures. They found that emphasis on internal emotions and fulfilment of personal goals, are important indicators of life satisfaction in individualist cultures.

However, external cultural norms emphasising consideration of others is just as important when judging levels of life satisfaction in collectivist societies. This is supported by Diener and Diener (1995) who found self-esteem to be a stronger predictor of life satisfaction for women in the USA than for women in India.Such cultural variations suggest that individuals are socialised to rely on differing cultural value systems when generating views of life satisfaction. However, the above findings do not account for the complexities of within culture differences (Ryff and Keyes, 1995). For example, Diener ; Biswas-Diener (2000) found that in Latin countries versus Pacific Rim-Asian countries, (both of which are collectivist), the [Pacific Rim] Asian countries value positive and negative emotions equally, whereas the Latin countries place greater value on pleasant emotions and view negative emotions as undesirable.Moreover, even though SWB levels tend to be higher in individualist societies than in collectivist societies, suicide and divorce rates are also higher (Diener et al. , 1999).

Such contradictory findings might be explained by lower levels of social support networks in individualist nations when compared with collectivist nations, which could foster isolation and depression. Thus it is important to investigate within cultural variations of well being at a deeper level (Ryff ; Keyes, 1995).More generally, design and methodological limitations are also evident in SWB research. For instance correlational designs provide limited information about underlying causes or processes involved in well-being. However more formal controlled experiments using physiological measurements such as cortisol levels (where appropriate), which give readings of stress levels (Diener ; Biswas Diener, 2000) could highlight causal pathways as well as support self-report findings or at least highlight discrepancies between both methodologies.Self-report measurements, (which sometimes consist of only a one off single global question) are also inadequate and open to biases, such that individuals may “use the scale to reflect the amount of happiness they believe they should experience” (Diener ; Biswas-Diener, 2000, p8).

However, these could be complimented by spouse or peer surveys in order to reduce such biases.In addition, measures of subjective experience sampling methods (ESM) which records affect [randomly] over a period of a month or so, as well as qualitative descriptions of peoples lives in the form of memory recall of both positive and negative affect (Thomas ; chambers, 1989, cf. Diener et al. , 1999), could give a more accurate insight into inter and intra-cultural indicators of life satisfaction over longer time periods.

The convergence of such measures could also provide greater confidence in the results of SWB research findings and lead to suitable interventions to increase levels of well-being.Nevertheless, even with improved design and methodologies, SWB is not sufficiently encompassing to explain all aspects of human well-being. More internal psychological functioning such as personality variables, which Keyes et al. , (2002) suggests are stronger predictors of well-being over longer time periods, can be better examined using the tradition of Psychological Well-Being (PWB), which originates from theories of human development and existential challenges of life (Keyes, et al. , 2002).

PWB is concerned with individual’s subjective evaluations of their lives across six different areas of psychological functioning (self acceptance, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and autonomy) and can be used to examine how individuals pursue their goals and develop as a person over time (Keyes, et al. , 2002). In fact, although SWB and PWB are separate traditions which measure different aspects of well-being, elements of PWB (Environmental mastery and self acceptance) have also been found to overlap with SWB measures of life satisfaction and affect balance.It has therefore been suggested that when combined to create an integrated typological model, the presence of high SWB and PWB increases the probability of optimal well-being (Keyes et al.

, 2002). In conclusion, SWB research findings support the notion that higher levels of SWB are influenced to a degree by socio-economic and cultural variables such as levels of income, human rights and individualism, which are mediated by salient needs, goals and values (Diener et al. 1995). However, taking into consideration within nation differences, methodological limitations, and the lack of theoretical underpinnings within the SWB tradition, it could be more promising to integrate SWB with the theoretical tradition of PWB, as well as adopting more wide-ranging [multiple] methodologies in order to offer a comprehensive representation of human well-being.

These are indeed exciting directions for future well-being research. However a cautionary note advises that traditions evolved from a Western individualistic milieu do not necessarily map neatly on to more indigenous psychologies. Thus if a true representation of socio-economic and cultural predictors of psychological well-being is to be sought, theory and measurement that is sensitive to cultural context must also be seriously addressed.

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