The Happy Tale of Dr. Ed Diener


In some circles, Dr. Ed Diener is known as Dr. Happiness — a moniker bestowed from his life’s work exploring, testing, and determining how ones actions, thoughts, and circumstances relate to subjective well-being (SWB aka happiness). Dr. Diener is one of the most influential figures in Psychology for his tremendous research contributions, the charitable contributions he’s lead with his family through the Diener Education Fund (including the freely available Noba textbooks!), his work as a Senior Scientist working with Gallup and coordinating international efforts to study well-being, his consultation to the internationally important Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), his efforts as the founding editor for one of the highest impact journals in Psychology (Perspectives on Psychological Science), for, well, you get the idea. There’s a very, very healthy list of amazing things on Dr. Diener’s CV demonstrating the influence of his career.

Simply put, when it comes to using Psychology to change the world, and in this case, literally using Psychology to help make the world a better, happier place, Dr. Diener has been at the forefront.

Dr. Diener introduces himself in the first excerpt:

Often I have been hesitant to write about the families — or more specifically spouses and children — of the people with whom I converse. It is not because families do not have an important place in the lives of influential scholars. And it is not because of the commonly stated concern among career researchers of how difficult it can be to attain that all-too-elusive work-life balance (translate to time for one’s family). Finding and maintaining this balance is accomplished by the very active scholars targeted in this Journey project in a variety of creative ways, and seems  likely the topic of at least a few books.  (If not, then I hope my publisher will want to publish a little side project book resulting from this year’s labor on just how people find and maintain this balance — no? anyone?). In any case, I’ve often omitted to include too much direct reference to spouses and children of influential scholars because it is common  that ideas, and context for those life-changing research programs have significant development before the incredibly important spouses and children appear. Having said all that, it would be inaccurate and irresponsible to discuss Dr. Ed Diener without strong inclusion of his family members. Ed’s wife and children have collaborated on ideas, organizations, and directions in his research. Several of them — and most notably his wife, Dr.  Carol Diener — have Psychology PhD’s, academic  appointments, and impressive careers in their own right. And their scholarly research and  ideas have contributed directly to the work of Ed Diener.

Of all the solutions to finding a fulfilling work-life balance maybe Ed Diener’s was the simplest and most ingenious: include your family directly in your work. Write with them, collaborate on projects with them, travel with them to conferences and on scientific expeditions. Meaningfully include them on the projects and ideas that are most important to your career,and they will be meaningfully a part of your daily life. Ed and Carol Diener met when they were both around 16 years of age, and have spent their lives together. For one trying to understand the critical context and background of Dr. Diener, family comes first.

With that in mind, here is  Dr. Diener describing some of his early life and influences:

See what  I mean about the importance of his family and its influence? There are some rather incredible details in this excerpt. First, young Ed spent this time in bed reading, learning, and with a growing fascination in statistical concepts. This kind of reflective and critical approach in his early life would seem to set the stage for some of his ideas later. He also describes his schooling with that tidbit about running away and renegotiating with his parents for a different school, closer to home, and one that would allow him to stay with his sister. We also learned a little about why his family settled in the San Joaquin valley after the incredible work of his  grandfather. And, if all that wasn’t enough, there is a wonderful cascade of events: going to boarding school, running away, resettling with a new school, and a Halloween dance which together lead to the union of Ed and Carol in high school! It’s rather a beautiful tale!  It tells us something about the iconoclasm of the young Ed Diener. He was reading about gambling in a fairly religious home, willing to run away from his school and renegotiate his education, and eventually chooses an academic path in Psychology instead of staying on a trajectory towards agriculture (as was encouraged by his father). The family influence is a critical aspect to Dr. Diener’s success, but so, too, is his iconoclasm.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Diener describes his undergraduate college experience and finding the Psychology major:

Dr. Diener’s stories are packed with a lot of details,  but there are some critical things to notice. The influence of his dedication to Carol and, therefore, seeking to accelerate his undergraduate degree in support of their union. The urging of his father and the historical context of the time: he and his brother were set to go for agricultural degrees and his sisters would learn education. And the infamous story of being discouraged from studying happiness as an undergraduate to instead studying conformity! Oh, the irony! That early research on conformity as an undergraduate stayed with him as he focused on group behaviors and de-individuation when he eventually started his own research in graduate school.  Dr. Diener completed  his undergraduate degree from Fresno State in 1968. Perfect timing for the draft board who quickly sent Ed his notice. Ed was drafted and needed to report to his local draft board.

In the following excerpt, Dr. Diener describes the  draft, his response, and his eventual start in graduate school at University of Washington:

Again, there is a lot to unpack in this excerpt. There is the professional experience Dr. Diener gained from his work once he registered as a conscientious objector: willing to die for his country but not willing to kill. There is also a somewhat subtle, but I suspect rather critical tidbit regarding the personal and ethical influence of his mother. Ed Diener’s mom was, in this description and elsewhere, a very strong optimist. She didn’t see problems, she saw opportunities. She believed in the goodness of things. She was very happy. Dr. Diener’s  mother instilled in him the philosophy that the value of his life, and even his likelihood to make it to heaven, would require doing meaningful work that helped people. If we step back and ask the larger question about what was the context that motivated Dr. Diener in his life and career, doesn’t this seem critical? His aspiration to help people is so clearly apparent. Dr. Diener loves research and discovered that love through the process of elimination after his work  within professional mental health and during graduate school. Ultimately, Dr. Diener devoted himself to research in a capacity that he found fulfilling. As he gained agency and efficacy as a researcher he put his efforts into studies  that can improve the quality of life, health, and well-being globally. The major pieces of his life have an obvious orientation: do excellent research, work tirelessly and devotedly to that research, then use that research to change national and international practices in ways that will serve a global improvement in humanity. It’s lofty, it’s aspirational, and I think it is exactly what Ed’s mother was hoping he might do (just maybe not specifically with Psychology).

The turning point to well-being research came later in Dr. Diener’s career. We have that early story: he wanted to study an aspect of well-being when he was an undergrad and that idea was rejected.  The interest in studying happiness stayed with him and, eventually, in 1981 during a sabbatical to the US Virgin Islands, Dr. Diener as a tenured faculty member turned his attention away from conformity and deindividuation to happiness. It wasn’t easy.

In this excerpt, Dr. Diener describes how that well-being research got started:

That was early 1980’s and it took close to 20 years before research on well-being gained wide-spread approval in Psychology. Dr. Diener and his colleagues had many challenges: many others in Psychology pre-judged this area as flakey and/or untestable pseudoscience. There were  challenges from those who didn’t believe that happiness can be accurately reported.

As an observer of this field, I think that there is an interesting historical dichotomy in Psychology: we’ve had scales about depression and the measurement of negative emotions were accepted in  Psychology as likely realistic and true. But not happiness. If someone reports she is happy, we tend to look for corroborating evidence. Is she really happy?  Is she smiling? Is she in a circumstance that supports her happiness? How does she know she is happy? There is an anisotropy: it tends to be easier to believe/accept negative beliefs than positive ones. That skepticism about a scientific construct of happiness colored  the early part of this new research program for Dr. Diener. He spent years measuring, testing, and validating every which way the concept of well-being. Moreover, he relies on terms like “well-being” because even though it is roughly equivalent to the term “happiness” the term “well-being” isn’t loaded with decades of Disney appropriation and other cultural antecedents that produce skepticism about its veracity.

Are you happy?  Really? How do you know? Well, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Diener there are important and replicable scales produced to measure and understand what that means. Moreover, there are tangible and meaningful implications of life satisfaction. Dr. Diener powerfully makes this point:

In terms  of risk factors for health, in  terms of quality of life, in terms of an active and engaged public, in terms of engaging with healthy behaviors like exercise, in terms of being socially active, and much more, happiness is predictive of all of them. There is a cliche: success breeds happiness. The data from Dr. Diener and colleagues (in this study Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky was first author) suggests that, in fact, the opposite is true: happier people tend to be more successful. The data are consistent and they are powerful. The Dieners are working on a scalable intervention to assist people with happiness — little daily strategies to be happier and better maintain happiness — and using that intervention in partnership commerce and public institutions that are so directly impacted by these benefits. Happiness matters. The data generated by Diener and colleagues from decades of work show that happiness (a) can be measured and (b) can be put to use to make the world a better place.

So there it is. From Dr. Diener and family to all of us: happy people trying to help the rest of us improve our abilities for happiness on a global scale, and to benefit our society in the process. We can only hope his influence is pervasive and long-lasting.

There are many more tales from Dr.  Diener and I look forward to sharing them with you in the book!

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Diener:

Diener, E. (1979). Deindividuation, self-awareness, and disinhibitionJournal of Personality and Social Psychology37(7), 1160-1171.

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-beingPsychological Bulletin95(3), 542-575.

Diener, E. (1994). Assessing subjective well-being: Progress and opportunitiesSocial Indicators Research31(2), 103-157.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national indexAmerican Psychologist55(1), 34-43.

Diener, E. (Ed.). (2009). The science of well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener (Vol. 37). Springer Science & Business Media.

Diener, E., & Chan, M. Y. (2011). Happy people live longer: Subjective well‐being contributes to health and longevityApplied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being3(1), 1-43.

Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science7(3), 181-185.

Diener E., Diener M. (2009) Cross-Cultural Correlates of Life Satisfaction and Self-Esteem. In: Diener E. (eds) Culture and Well-Being. Social Indicators Research Series, vol 38. Springer, Dordrecht

Diener, E., Diener, C., Choi, H., & Oishi, S. (2018). Revisiting “Most People Are Happy”—and discovering when they are not. Perspectives on Psychological Science13(2), 166-170.

Diener, E., & Emmons, R. A. (1984). The independence of positive and negative affectJournal of Personality and Social Psychology47(5), 1105-1117.

Diener, E. D., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scaleJournal of Personality Assessment49(1), 71-75.

Diener, E., & Fujita, F. (1995). Resources, personal strivings, and subjective well-being: A nomothetic and idiographic approachJournal of Personality and Social Psychology68(5), 926-935.

Diener, E., & Larsen, R. J. (1984). Temporal stability and cross-situational consistency of affective, behavioral, and cognitive responsesJournal of Personality and Social Psychology47(4), 871-883.

Diener, E., Larsen, R. J., Levine, S., & Emmons, R. A. (1985). Intensity and frequency: dimensions underlying positive and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology48(5), 1253-1265.

Diener, E., Smith, H., & Fujita, F. (1995). The personality structure of affectJournal of Personality and Social Psychology69(1), 130-141.

Diener, E., & Suh, E. (1997). Measuring quality of life: Economic, social, and subjective indicatorsSocial Indicators Research40(1-2), 189-216.

Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progressPsychological Bulletin125(2), 276-302.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological Bulletin131(6), 803-855.

(Photo of Dr. Diener at home with the absolutely stunning Wasatch Range mountains in the background)

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