Although related, happiness and life satisfaction are not the same things.
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!