Psych Bio: Ed Diener

Ed Diener is the Joseph R. Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He received his doctorate at the University of Washington in 1974, and has been a faculty member at the University of Illinois for the past 36 years. Dr. Diener was the president of the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, the Society of Personality and Social Psychology and the International Positive Psychology Association. Diener was the editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the editor of Journal of Happiness Studies. He is the founding editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Diener has over 300 publications, with about 200 being in the area of the psychology of well-being.

Dr. Diener is a fellow of five professional societies. Professor Diener is listed as one of the most highly cited psychologists by the Institute of Scientific Information, with over 30,500 citations to his credit. He won the Distinguished Researcher Award from the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, the first Gallup Academic Leadership Award, and the Jack Block Award for Personality Psychology. Dr. Diener won several teaching awards, including the Oakley-Kundee Award for Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Illinois. With over 50 publications he is the most published author in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Professor Diener’s research focuses on the measurement of well-being; temperament and personality influences on well-being; theories of well-being; income and well-being; and cultural influences on well-being. He has edited three recent books on subjective well-being, and a 2005 book on multi-method measurement in psychology. Diener just published a popular book on happiness with his son Robert Biswas-Diener (Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth) as well as a book on policy uses of accounts of well-being with Richard Lucas, Ulrich Schimmack, and John F. Helliwell (Well-Being for Public Policy). A multivolume collection of his most influential works in the area of subjective well-being will be published this year (The Collected Works of Ed Diener) as well as a book on international differences in well-being, which he edited in conjunction with Daniel Kahneman and John F. Helliwell (International Differences in Well-Being).

Dr. Diener was born in 1946 in Glendale, California. He grew up on a tomato and cotton farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, near Fresno. He attended San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, where he met his wife, Carol. He received his bachelor’s degree from California State University at Fresno and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Ed and Carol met at age 16 and have been married for 40 years; she is a child clinical psychologist and attorney who recently retired from the University of Illinois. The Dieners’ twin daughters, Marissa and Mary Beth, teach psychology at the University of Utah and the University of Kentucky, respectively. Marissa is a developmental psychologist and Mary Beth is a clinical psychologist. The Dieners’ son Robert has collected well-being data in collaboration with Dr. Diener. Because of the exotic groups involved in Robert’s research, including the African Maasai, Greenlandic Inuit, the Amish, and slum dwellers in Calcutta, Robert has been called the Indiana Jones of well-being research. He was branded in a rite of manhood by the Maasai. Two other daughters, Kia and Susan, are not psychologists.

In his own words:

As appeared in Robert Levine, Lynnette Zelezny, and Aroldo Rodriques (Eds.), Journeys in Social Psychology (pp. 1-18). New York: Psychology Press.

Ed Diener: One Happy Autobiography

Ed Diener

University of Illinois



In this autobiography, I discuss three aspects of my life – the stages of my research career, the personality characteristics and resources that made my success possible, and the challenges I faced. Thus, I give a motivational view of my life, not a narrative recounting couched in terms of dates and places. In my career as a scientist, the first stage focused on the study of deindividuation, the second on the research of subjective well-being, and the third is the future, from age 60 to 100. The 25 years I spent exploring subjective well-being have been wonderful ones, but I expect the next 40 years to be just as rewarding. The character traits that I describe are an insatiable curiosity and inveterate nonconformity. These personality proclivities were given direction by my upbringing, which included a strong and supportive family that emphasized hard work and high achievement. The crucial resources in my success were my family, colleagues, and graduate students who have worked with me on research. Together, the personality traits and social resources led me to explore unusual topics in new ways, and to analyze topics programmatically with diverse types of studies. Finally, in this chapter I describe the challenges I faced in life, beginning with the intense need to help the world and the personal struggle to discover whether psychological research could do that. The other two challenges were the dilemma about giving priority to my family or my research and the need to gain respect from a skeptical scientific community for the research area of subjective well-being. I conclude that although a career in research is not for everyone, finding the right work for one’s personality, in combination with supportive family and colleagues, leads to very high life satisfaction.

Life looked bright in 1946 when I arrived in Glendale, California, the youngest of six children, several weeks overdue and a fat little guy at over 9 pounds in weight. In the beginning, I knew very little about statistics and subjective well-being, but had a loving family that produced subjective well-being in me. At my baptism, two weeks after my arrival, my older brother got his head stuck in the communion railing at the church and stole the show. After that unfortunate incident, I have had the wind at my back through the rest of my life. In this accounting, I will present my life like a social psychology experiment: in a 3 by 3 design – three facets each for three major topics.  The three overarching domains are: 1) The three fun-filled stages of my professional career as a research psychologist, 2) The personality characteristics and resources that helped my success, and 3) The challenges I overcame. At age 60 I am hopeful that my life has another 30 or 40 years left to go, and therefore this report is a periodic update, not an autobiography per se, which will come much later.

Career Stages

My father was a successful farmer, who wanted nothing more than to produce more successful farmers.  So he sent me to Fresno State College to obtain a degree in agriculture.  Unfortunately for my father, the study of seeds and weeds bored me to death. He did not seem to realize that plants do the same thing year after year, whereas I noticed this early on and was not enthusiastic about the repetitive character of Mother Nature.  I was, however, drawn to anthropology and psychology, where the subject matter seemed less predictable.

My father was interested in concrete things such as tractors and tomatoes, not in something as ephemeral as the human mind.  My father loved numbers, as I do, but he loved numbers applied to the physical world, not to human behavior. He thought the world needed more weathermen, not psychologists.  For my dad, predictive validity meant accurately forecasting rain, not human behavior.  He told me that we would not need psychologists if only people worked harder, because then their mental problems would disappear. Nonetheless, my parents allowed me to follow my own interests and were supportive once it was clear that psychology was my passion.

In the standard research methods course required of all psychology majors at Fresno State, each student had to conduct his or her own study, and I proposed to the professor that I assess the happiness of migrant farm workers. After all, I had grown up with farm workers, and most of them appeared to me to be relatively happy, even though relatively poor.  The professor was not pleased with my proposal. He said: “Mister Diener, you are not doing that research project for two reasons. First, I know that farm workers are not happy, and second, there is no way to measure happiness.”  Ironically, I conducted my class project on conformity. Thus, I was temporarily diverted from studying happiness. It wouldn’t be until 1981, when I received tenure at Illinois, that I would finally become free to study what I wanted: happiness.  But in the interim, I needed a topic to fill the intervening 15 years; something to while away my time.

Stage 1: Deindividuation

After working in a psychiatric hospital for several years, I attended graduate school at the University of Washington. My wife, Carol, and I chose the university because Seattle was very green and pretty; we knew nothing about the school itself. When I see the effort students now put into choosing just the right graduate school, I am amazed at how nonchalant we were about this important decision. But this leads me to also wonder whether maybe finding the perfect graduate school is not as important as what you make of the experience once you arrive.

I was an eager-beaver during those graduate school years; I even wrote a history book while working on my dissertation. I think the secret was that I did not waste time.  I worked hard all day and a few evenings without interruption and therefore, had the weekends free for my family.  I came to grad school after being a hospital administrator, and so I was organized and efficient. While at Washington, the department of psychology moved to a new building, but I remained behind in the deserted Denny Hall because that allowed me to have an entire floor of the building to conduct my deindividuation studies.  I had a small army of undergraduate assistants, up to 20 per semester, to help conduct studies and code data.  We had a ball running those studies.

My major professors at the University of Washington were Irwin Sarason and Ronald E. Smith, who taught me the basics of personality psychology and the importance of multimethod measurement. Years later, I would edit a book on multimethod measurement, and I owe my interest in this area to my mentors in Seattle. An idea that I learned from my mentors at the home of the Huskies is that even when situations exert a powerful influence on behavior, personality can simultaneously produce strong effects.  We published a review study that showed personality, on average, predicted as much variance as did experimentally manipulated situational variables.

Another one of my professors in Seattle was Scott Fraser, with whom I and other graduate students began a series of unusual studies on deindividuation, the loss of self-regulation in groups.  Given the riots of the 60’s and the ongoing anti-Vietnam rallies, we were intrigued by crowd behavior.  In one series of deindividuation studies, we observed thousands of trick-or-treaters as they came on Halloween to dozens of homes around Seattle. We experimentally manipulated factors such as anonymity, arousal, and responsibility, and observed whether kids “stole” extra candy. In some situations, almost all trick-or-treaters made off with extra sweets, and in other conditions almost no children did so, thus demonstrating the power that situational factors sometimes exert on cute, costumed rule-breaking children. These studies made the national news, often repeating each year just before Halloween. These studies were fun because I conducted them with fellow graduate students, Art Beaman and Karen Endresen, with whom I became close friends. We worked hard for a common purpose and did not compete with each other. Notice to graduate students: though you need to advance your own career, cooperation with your fellow graduate students, not competition, is the way to achieve this.

While in graduate school, I employed a method for studying group aggression called the “beat the pacifist” paradigm. Our participants were asked to help us test the training of pacifists, to ensure that they would remain nonaggressive when faced with challenges to their beliefs.  The participants could do so by discussing pacifism with the target, or by harassing him to see how he would react, or even by attacking the victim with various implements.  Again, we manipulated factors such as arousal, anonymity, and responsibility.  The differences in aggression between conditions were dramatic. In some conditions, many participants would use rubber bats to hit the target hundreds of times in a short period.  In some instances, the study had to be halted because the participants were attacking the pacifist (often played bravely by me to spare my assistants from this unpleasant role) in a way that would injure him.

It may surprise some readers that we did not encounter problems in receiving ethics approval for these studies.  However, as I recall, the psychology department in those times was overshadowed by much more scandalous affairs.  One professor was fired for selling cocaine and justified his stash of drugs by claiming it was part of a psychology experiment.  A second young professor turned out not to actually have a Ph.D., because he attended graduate school without being enrolled as a student. Another professor was found to be having sex with the undergraduates in his class and used the defense that he was helping the women by moving them to a higher spiritual level by putting them in moral conflict.  Once, a female professor asked me whether I had an “open marriage,” and I naively responded “yes.” Only later did I realize that her inquiry was an invitation to sex rather than an inquiry about the honesty of my marriage. Once I understood the real question, I had to admit that my marriage was not open. Thus, although not many IRB’s today would approve the “beat the pacifist” studies, in the context of the 1970’s, they seemed unremarkable.

In the 1980s, I traveled to South Africa to serve as an expert witness, based on my deindividuation research, in a murder trial in which a huge crowd had murdered a woman.  An angry crowd of over ten-thousand beat and killed a woman who was believed to be a police informant.  The entire incident was captured by a television network, and fourteen of those involved in the murder were apprehended by the police. My role for the defense was to convince the judges that the crowd situation provided mitigating circumstances; without this defense, the defendants would all be hanged, because the death sentence was automatically imposed unless mitigating circumstances could be proven.  Most of the defendants were found guilty, but none were hanged.  My work with deindividuation ended on a high note.

The deindividuation studies were fun, but I was anxious to move on to new territory. Because I was granted tenure at Illinois in 1980, I was finally free to begin studying happiness.

Stage 2: Subjective Well-Being

In 1980, Carol and I spent our sabbatical year in the Virgin Islands.  While Carol taught nine psychology courses at the College of the Virgin Islands, I spent the year on the beach, reading the 18 books and 220 articles I could find that were related to subjective well-being.  One might think that the island setting was conducive to happiness, but a surprising thing we noticed was that many people who moved to this tropical setting did not find the happiness they sought.  Instead, their alcoholism, bad social skills, and chronic discontent often followed them to paradise. Living in paradise apparently does not guarantee high subjective well-being, and so I wondered, what does?  That year I wrote a basic introduction for psychologists to the field of subjective well-being, which appeared in Psychological Bulletin in 1984, and that early paper has been cited well over 1200 times.

Journalists ask why I decided to study happiness in those days, when it was a topic far from the beaten track. Although the works of the humanistic psychologists, such as Maslow, stimulated my interest in the ingredients of the good life, my parents also had a profound influence on me. They were happy people and believed in looking at the bright side of events. My mother presented me with books such as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and this piqued my interest.  My mother told me that even criticism could be framed in a positive way.  No wonder I was drawn to happiness.

When I began to read the literature on subjective well-being, I realized that this was relatively unstudied terrain.  Yes, there were pioneers – such as Norman Bradburn and Marie Jahoda – but most topics in this area had not been analyzed in depth. Not only did the topic seem very important, but it seemed relatively easy to explore, because so little research had been done. What a happy decision for me.

In the 25 years since I entered this field, my laboratory has concentrated on several topics, including measurement.  Although measurement is boring to many, I believe that it is pivotal, forming the foundation of scientific work. Thus, I have worked to create new measures, validate measures, examine the structure of well-being, and analyze the relations between various types of assessment. Measurement issues are still understudied, and issues about defining and measuring well-being are among the most important questions in this area of study. Besides measurement, research from my laboratory has spanned topics from the influence personality and culture have on happiness to the effects of income and materialism.

Recently, as an extension of my measurement work, I have been exploring the idea of national indicators of well-being to aid policy makers. The idea is that national accounts of subjective well-being can be useful to policy makers by providing them with a metric for societal betterment that includes information beyond that obtained by economic indicators. I argue that we need a “Dow Jones of Happiness” that tells us how our nation is doing in terms of engagement at work, trust in our neighbors, life satisfaction, and positive emotions.  The proposed national accounts of well-being have been greeted by more acceptance than would have been possible a decade ago.  For example, the government of the United Kingdom is considering what well-being measures might be used on a systematic basis to inform policy, and the biennial survey of the European Union already includes a large number of questions about subjective well-being.

Another interest of mine is the outcomes of well-being – how does the experience of happiness and life satisfaction influence people’s behavior and success?  Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and I argue that happy people are likely to be successful people in all sorts of realms, such as on the job, in relationships, and in longevity and health.  Based on this work, my son, Robert, and I are developing a book for the public, in which we present the case that happiness means more than feeling good – it is one ingredient in the recipe for success.

When I entered the field of subjective well-being, a few facts were already known. Nonetheless, most of the territory was uncharted. Looking at the area, I felt that the first priority after the development of good measures was to discover some basic, replicable facts, to map the topography of who is happy and who is unhappy. My role models were not the great theorists of science such as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.  I felt the field was much too primitive for even rudimentary theories. Instead, I looked to Karl von Frisch and Tycho Brahe as my two models for scientific work on subjective well-being.  I read von Frisch’s Dance of the Bees at age 14,and was awestruck by the genius of his simple experiments with bees. I had grown up on a farm where millions of domesticated honeybees were used for pollinating crops, and yet their behavior was inexplicable to me – they were a swarm of dangerous madness with a queen at the middle. But von Frisch discovered so much about bee’s frenetic behavior from his experiments, demonstrating that powerful observation and experimentation can lead to true advances in human knowledge even without elaborate theories.  Tycho Brahe, who wore an artificial silver nose because of a swordfight mishap, carefully mapped the heavens, and his maps provided the basis of the theoretical advances by Copernicus and Keppler.  Just as Tycho spent years of nights ensconced on a dark island recording the movements of the stars, I hoped to carefully chart who is happy and who is not, so that some later geniuses could produce Newtonian laws of happiness.

One of my goals for the field of subjective well-being was to develop other measures besides broad self-report scales, which suffer from certain limitations such as self-presentational differences between people. One method we began using in our earliest studies in 1981 was the experience-sampling method, in which we used alarm watches to signal people at random moments through the day. When their alarms sounded, participants rated their moods.  If they were involved in sex or some other absorbing activity where interruption might ruin the mood, they could wait up to 30 minutes to complete the mood scales.  We also developed informant report measures and memory measures of happiness.

Although I worked in relative obscurity in the early years, recently the topic has become popular.  Happiness has become a hot topic among television and documentary artists, as well as newspaper and magazine writers.  A problem is that many journalists have a message they wish to convey and are merely looking for experts to confirm their opinion. The media reports are sometimes barely recognizable from what I said to the journalist. Although it is exciting to be featured in prominent outlets such as Time magazine and documentary films, my feeling is that very often now the reporting is outstripping our knowledge.  As the field develops the dance with the media will be a continuing struggle between providing helpful information to the public and not getting caught in a trap of telling more than we know.

One question that is frequently asked by journalists is what I have learned from my studies about happiness that I can use in my own life. Many people think of me as the happiest person they know. My own assessment is that I am extremely high in life satisfaction, but I am only average in levels of positive moods. Studying happiness is not a guarantee of being happy, any more than being a biologist will necessarily make one healthier. One thing that is quite clear to me is that happiness is a process, not a place. No set of good circumstances will guarantee happiness. Although such circumstances (a good job, a good spouse, and so forth) are helpful, happiness requires fresh involvement with new activities and goals – even perfect life circumstances will not create happiness. For me this meant that I should not worry about getting to a sweet spot in my career where everything would be lined up just right. I realized that no amount of eminence, awards, desirable teaching load, a larger office, or whatever other thing I might want, would guarantee happiness, although these things might help. Instead, I discovered that continuing to have goals that I enjoyed working for was a key ingredient for happiness. People often think that once they obtain a lot of good things, they will thereafter be happy, without realizing they are, for the most part, likely to adapt to the circumstances.  On the other hand, fresh involvement with new goals and activities can continue to produce happiness.

Another fact that has been evident in my life is that all people experience some negative life events, and yet many people are nevertheless still happy. I found that tragic events in my own life led to temporary unhappiness, but that I bounced back. People do not necessarily bounce back completely from all negative events, but most humans are pretty resilient.  The major sources of happiness often reside in a person’s activities, social relationships, and attitudes towards life.

Stage 3: The Future

At age 60, some people believe they are entering the last phase of their lives. I consider 60 to be the half-way point of my productive years (from 30 to 90). Thus, I am exploring new avenues for the second half of life.  One project is a journal I have founded for the Association of Psychological Science, called Perspectives on Psychological Science. For four years, I was the associate editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and then served as the editor of the personality section of that journal for six years. Alex Michalos, Ruut Veenhoven, and I founded the Journal of Happiness Studies, for which I was the chief editor for several years. The 12 years of previous editing was my warm-up for editing “Perspectives.”  My goal is a lofty one – to make “Perspectives” the most interesting psychology journal in the world.

Another project for the next 30 years is to make Carol’s life as happy as it can be. I must remind myself that the good life is more than being a productive researcher; it includes being a good human as well. Early-career scientists should not forget this point. Although it may seem strange to mention Carol’s happiness in a professional biography, I want to ensure that young, ambitious psychologists do not forget the point that one should not excel at their jobs at the expense of being decent human beings.

On the whole, except for a few health problems relating to aging, I expect the next 30 years to be as good as the last 30 years!  Andrew Carnegie said that to die rich is to die disgraced.  Thus, Carol and I have plans to use our money before we die on projects related to helping people and advancing psychology, which will require our money, time, and energy.  This is yet another lesson for young readers – life is not over at 50. Or 60. Or 70.  Although I may slow down a bit after 60, scientists often continue productive careers into their 80’s.

Resources and Strengths

I believe that to understand people, we must consider their strengths and resources, not simply the problems they face. In my case, I have certain personality characteristics that have helped me succeed in the career path I chose, as well as abundant resources for which I am very grateful. I was fortunate to come from an affluent family, which allowed me fewer pressures when it came to money. I did not have to take added summer work if it interfered with my research, and I was able to fund much of my own research so that I did not have to spend time applying for grants. However, other resources were much more helpful than money.

Resource 1: Personality Characteristics

From an early age, I wondered about phenomena I observed. As a child, my curiosity sometimes got me in trouble. I once threw a rock at a swarm of bees to determine how they would react, and found out the painful answer. I also recall frustrating my 7th grade teacher with questions about math, such as how to compute cube roots.  My head still hurts, at times, from wondering about so many things.

I was a sickly child, and so I spent a lot of time at home. I would roll dice for hours and record the outcomes and eventually, figured out how to compute probabilities. I then turned to calculating the probabilities of poker and black-jack hands, a more challenging task for a sixth-grader. I feel that curiosity is one of my biggest assets as a researcher; I always seemed to be fascinated more by what I did not know than by what I already knew.  Engineering is probably a good field for those who like more certainties; psychology intrigues those who are drawn to uncertainties.

My intense curiosity about things has served me well. For example, I not only constantly wonder about what makes people happy (and it sometimes keeps me awake at nights) but I wonder how measures can be improved and what shortcomings there are in our current research. Many people think the core of a good scholar is intelligence; I think it is an intense sense of curiosity.

Although I was a high-achieving child, I was also always a sensation seeker and nonconformist. This sometimes resulted in danger-seeking, for example climbing the Golden Gate Bridge on several occasions.  As a teenager I experimented quite a bit with gasoline, gunpowder, and fire.  My parents gave me a car at age 12, for driving on dirt roads only, and I made good use of it with my friends – hunting birds from the windows as we drove.  I did quite a few nonconformist things, perhaps even some illegal ones (which I will leave to your imagination).  As an adult, I was known for parties at our house that featured events such as walking on broken glass, carving Spam into “art,” and seeing whose method worked best for removing red wine stains from our carpeting. Although I am embarrassed to provide more examples of my behaviors, I believe this playful attitude to life had positive effects on my scholarship. I was willing to take on new topics, even if they were not popular, and I was not much affected by what others thought, if I believed the topic was an interesting one. This nonconforming tendency led me to be attracted to topics that were not heavily worked by others, and continues to lead me to challenge conventional wisdom.

Resource 2: My Upbringing and Family

I possess personality characteristics that have aided my career, but by far the biggest resource in my life has been the help I have received from others, starting with my parents. My parents gave me a sense of security, and meaning in life. They were optimists, but also transmitted the idea that we must all work to improve the world. My four older sisters lavished attention on me, and made me think I was special. Because my parents almost never argued and never moved from their farm, the universe was a secure and benevolent place for me. Although I was no more special than anyone else, feeling secure and valued gave me a self-confidence that helped me take on new and big projects later in life.

I was the youngest of six children, but my siblings were much older and went away to high school, so I grew up much like an only-child. Because I was often sick in my early years, my mother read to me for hours. As I grew older, my mom was intent on me being a high achiever. I won dozens of merit badges in Boy Scouts, and many awards in 4-H. I also competed in many public speaking events even before I got to high school. While my mother focused on my accomplishments, my dad was a disciple of hard work. My 4-H projects were raising cattle, cotton, and sugar beets. I also did electrical and carpentry projects, and did welding in the farm shop. In the summer my dad directed me to drive a mammoth tractor, but I would do anything to escape that boring task. On the farm, I learned a high degree of self-reliance; I was expected to figure out how to do things and get them done.  No molly-coddling from my dad.  If I could have a car at age 12, I could figure out how to get things done too.  Thus, I grew up in a world of hard work, self-reliance, and achievement.  The things I learned growing up shaped the rest of my life, and many of the meta-skills readily transferred to the research arena.

I attended Westside Elementary School, which was a farm school with many students who had recently emigrated from Mexico and had trouble with English. Because of the difficulty of attracting teachers to such a remote area, many of our instructors possessed only provisional teaching certificates. I had a teacher in 4th grade who showed a huge number of movies and then showed them again in reverse. I was never assigned even one minute of homework in my first nine years in school. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, my parents sent me to a high-powered Jesuit boarding school for high school. The curriculum was tough, but having never done homework, the three hours per day of study hall was traumatic for me.  In addition, we were given library assignments, and I had never used a library.  So I boarded a Greyhound bus and ran away. My parents told me I had to return to the school, but I refused. And so I went to live with an older sister closer to home, and I attended a Catholic school that did not have a study hall.

This was a fortunate turn of events for me, because it was in that high school that I met the love of my life, Carol.  Although we encountered the police and a lady with a shotgun on our first two dates, our relationship flourished from the outset.  We dated through two years of high school and two years of college, and finally got married at the advanced age of 20 in our junior year at Fresno State.  Carol was pregnant by our senior year in college, and we had our first children the fall after graduation.  I still recall Carol throwing up from morning sickness before each of her final exams during that last year in college.

Carol and I have had a wonderful family life. Rather than interfering with my research, it has provided the security and positive moods that have allowed me to be more successful in my research. Carol gave birth to our twins, Marissa and Mary Beth, when we were 22. In those days before sonograms, our twins came totally unexpectedly. We had Robert while I was a graduate student. Thus, when we moved to my first job, at the University of Illinois, we had three children.  As I began my tenure-track job, and Carol began her Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, the twins began first grade, and Robert was expelled from Montessori school for being too nonconforming.  My life proves that it is possible to combine an academic career with a family, although it is a lot of work.

Carol returned to school to obtain a law degree in 1994. She had mastered her job as a professor of clinical psychology and sought a new challenge. What made her first year in law school more difficult than usual was that she continued to teach in the psychology department part-time, and four of our children were all wed in that overly-full year. Most law students find the first year of law school to be quite challenging, but they usually don’t also have to contend with working and organizing weddings. Carol went to law school essentially for fun, an unusual motivation for most law students who find the law-school experience to be stressful.  And she did have fun. However, law school also helped her in forensic psychology work.  Carol has been teaching service-learning courses in the community with the police and the juvenile detention center, in which her law background is helpful.

Our experiences of parenting our three children were so rewarding that we decided to take in hard-to-place children when our biological children were in high school. We took in five foster children, all when they were about 10 years old, and ultimately adopted Kia and Susan.

In 1985 my father died, and this resulted in me becoming president of our large family farm. We grow processing tomatoes, cotton, lettuce, and other crops, and have over 70 employees. We grow over 100,000 tons of processing tomatoes each year, and so if you have ever eaten Mexican food, Italian food, tomato soup, or ketchup, you likely have partaken of some of our tomatoes.  This is why I founded the Psychology of Tomatoes Club of America, but so far only Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania has joined.  Being president of the farm was a big job, requiring about two days a week of my time. Thus, I had to work very hard in those days, and there was little time for hobbies, television, or socializing with friends. The farm management was a nice break from academic work, and the farm provided income that meant we did not have any financial worries. At the same time, I was working days, nights, and weekends to keep up.

Resource 3: Colleagues and Students

On my curriculum vita, I have over 200 publications, but what I like about my publication record is that I have had over 100 different co-authors.  My C2 index for “collaboration” is 10, meaning that there are ten scientists with whom I have each produced ten or more publications.  In other words, it is my good fortune to have worked intensively with a large number of very talented individuals. I have been blessed with some of the best graduate students in all of psychology, and to them I am so grateful. The students who have worked with me have gone on to win many awards and acclamations, but these do not fully capture their enthusiasm, hard work, and creativity! They have made my career successful.

My first Ph.D. student was Randy Larsen, who went on to win the early scientific career award from the American Psychological Association. Robert Emmons came to my laboratory a few years later, and he was one of the most productive graduate students I have ever seen.  In our first years in the field of subjective well-being, we published 15 studies in 1984 and 1985 alone. Because of these outstanding students, I was off to a strong start. Over the years, my research has often moved in new directions because of the people working with me. Eunkook Suh and Shigehiro Oishi moved my work toward questions of culture and well-being, while Richard Lucas prompted greater exploration of the role of adaptation to well-being. Similarly, Ulrich Schimmack, Frank Fujita, and Bill Pavot explored the structure of well-being in my laboratory and then later on their own.  In the most recent years, I have had a new round of very talented students – Will Tov, Weiting Ng, Christie Scollon, Chu Kim-Prieto, Maya Tamir, and Derrick Wirtz.  I have published over 130 papers and books with 55 students and former students, and I have three students with whom I have published more than 20 papers each. I once sat in an auditorium with this very talented group of former graduate students, and someone walking by said “genius row.” They were not referring to me, but to the enormously gifted students with whom I have been so fortunate to work. As I will describe, I have also been fortunate to have my wife and three psychologist children work with me, and I continue to collaborate with them on a number of projects. This, too, is a very talented group.  My wife Carol has more insight into people than any psychologist I have ever met.

In my work on happiness, I also have been blessed with impressive co-authors such as David Myers, Martin Seligman, Laura King, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Daniel Kahneman. As mentioned above, I have had many outstanding graduate students and post-docs working with me. There are so many that I can’t name them all here, but I should say that this group is responsible for most of the specific topics of my research. Excellent graduate students move their mentor’s research in new directions, and they influence their mentor as much as he or she influences them. I have been the president of several scientific societies and have received a distinguished scientist award. However, the award of which I am proudest was a teaching award that was bestowed on me for involving students in my research.

My advice to young people who are entering the field: Work with excellent mentors and fellow graduate students, and your career will be enormously enhanced. When you become a professor, do everything you can to attract the most outstanding students. Don’t compete with your colleagues and students; collaborate with them instead.

The Psychology Department at the University of Illinois

When I earned my doctoral degree, my first job offer came from Harvard University, and it was difficult to turn down this position. My parents taught me not to care about prestige, but I failed to completely learn the lesson. However, Carol was admitted to the clinical psychology graduate program at Illinois, making the decision easier, and so we headed to the Midwest. Although I really wanted to go to Harvard – everyone recognizes that prestigious institution – I did not realize at the time that the department of psychology at Illinois is truly outstanding. After 32 years at the University of Illinois, I realize that my parents were again correct – do not worry about prestige, but choose the place where you can do your best work, which for me has been at Illinois. Although not as high-profile as Harvard, our department has the most productive colleagues and students, and I have learned more psychology as a faculty member there than I did as a student. We never thought we would stay on the prairie in Illinois, but we are still there because of the excellence of the department and because it is such a wonderful scholarly environment. In every phase of my life I have been blessed with so many resources; I wonder what I did in the previous life to have deserved my good fortune.

Life Challenges

I have faced several challenges in my life and wrestling with these issues has energized my life.

Challenge 1: Making Time for Family and Research

My family was very close when I was a child, and I wanted a similar family when I became an adult. Carol and I met in high school and fell in love. We decided to have eight children, because we both enjoyed kids.  To be truthful, I wanted 8 and Carol wanted only 6.  However, when I became a researcher, and Carol became a clinical researcher with a university appointment, the issue was how to be good parents and also good psychologists. I recognized that to be outstanding at research required long hours – it is unlikely to make major contributions working normal 40-hour weeks.  Eighty hours is required.  How could I resolve the 24-hours in a day limitation, wanting to be outstanding both as a husband and father, as well as a researcher?

One part of the solution was to drop out superfluous activities from my life. I decided I would have to watch television and read novels after retirement. When friends might mention popular television programs such as Seinfeld or Cheers, I would have to admit I had never seen them. I did regret not being able to read novels but knew there was simply no time for hobbies. Of course one can be a good researcher without working night and day, but for those who hope to work at the forefront of science, sacrifices are usually needed. For me, these sacrifices were always worth it, because I can’t imagine an episode of Seinfeld that is as good as analyzing data or as spending time with my kids.  In a recent study, sex was the most rewarding activity for a group of Texas women.  I believe that is because they have never analyzed data.

Another part of my solution to the family-research dilemma was to frequently involve my family in my work. I often took our kids to work and discussed psychology with them. This had the unintended benefit of leading our three biological children into careers in psychology. Because our two adopted daughters did not go into psychology, we often joke that it must be genetic. But an alternative explanation is that we adopted our two daughters at age 10, and so they missed some of that early exposure to the discipline. Marissa became a developmental psychologist, and teaches at the University of Utah, and Mary Beth became a clinical psychologist and teaches at the University of Kentucky. I joke that genes are not destiny because although our twin daughters have virtually identical genes, their careers took different paths.

On the weekend and evenings, we sometimes carried out psychology projects with our children. For example, Robert did his science fair project on the relation of mood and weather.  When Robert was a baby, I trained him to “magically” turn the television on and off by waving his arms – just for fun (waving his arms actually completed a circuit for the electric eye above him).  We all tried receiving shocks from the shock-machine in my laboratory, and the kids helped me collect beer bottles to throw in deindividuation experiments.  At the dinner table, we often discussed the activities of the day like any other family, but we also discussed issues related to human behavior.  There was never any attempt to influence our children’s career choices; psychology was just something they learned is very interesting.

We traveled with our children every summer. Some of our trips were to visit standard destinations such as the Grand Canyon, while other travel was to more exotic locations. When we traveled in a dugout canoe to visit the Yagua Indians deep in the Amazon rainforest, they gave our son, Robert, a blow-gun with curare-tipped poison darts. Knowing that curare can induce respiratory failure and be fatal, Carol was a strict mom and would not let Robert keep the curare. But he did bring the blowgun and darts back from our travels; hopefully he did not use them on his friends.

To this day, Robert loves traveling to exotic places, and he has been a wonderful resource for me in collecting data from difficult sites. Few of my graduate students would be willing to live with the Maasai and be branded by them in a rite of manhood. Similarly, few of my graduate students could travel to Northern Greenland and live among the icebergs with Inuit in order to collect data. I am certain that none of my other assistants would want to collect data in the worst slums of Calcutta or among the homeless.  Thus, as the “Indiana Jones” of psychology, Robert has been a tremendous asset to me.

Challenge 2: How to Help the World?

My parents were very religious and built a Catholic church on their farm for their employees. They contributed their time and energy extensively to charities and were generous philanthropists. My mom and dad inculcated in me the idea that the most important goal in life is to improve the world. My mother once told me that some people believe they will get to heaven by faith, but she believed you have to earn heaven through good works. Although my parents were wealthy, making a lot of money was never their goal in life.

Despite my evolving views on religion, the motive to improve the world has stuck with me. But the question was always how best to help the world? I thought of becoming a priest, but meeting Carol interfered with that idea I thought of becoming a doctor and going to Africa like Albert Schweitzer, but my squeamishness seemed to be an impediment to a career in medicine. Finally, I settled on clinical psychology because that combined a topic I found to be fascinating with helping people in trouble. When a psychology professor asked me why I entered psychology, I replied, “To help the world.” He was crestfallen because he had hoped I would say my motivation was an interest in psychology for its own sake. My major motivation in those days, however, was to find a vocation that would improve the world. Only later did I come to terms with the idea that helping the world might come from doing what I did best, and what I enjoyed most.

After college graduation, I was called for the draft to go to Vietnam. I registered as a Conscientious Objector. My family was disappointed in this choice, but I persisted and was fortunate to be granted C.O. status by my draft board. When I told people I was a C.O., they assumed I meant Commissioned Officer, and they were shocked when I told them the real meaning of the letters. The draft board assigned me to two years of alternative service working in a psychiatric hospital to take the place of military service. This was wonderful for me because I thought I would get the needed experience to be accepted to a top program in clinical psychology. Little did I know that the experience would be very educational in another way – revealing to me that I hated working with patients.  I was perceptive enough to realize that if one hates working with clients, one is probably not cut out for being a therapist.

Through a number of promotions I became the administrator of a new, small psychiatric hospital in the system. This heavy responsibility at age 24 was a huge lesson in many aspects of life. What does not kill you will strengthen you.  Because of this intense experience in which I had to burden the heavy responsibilities of administering a hospital, I went to graduate school with a maturity beyond my years. The hospital also educated me regarding a future choice – I would never enter university administration because it turned out that I loved research much more than being an administrator.

Upon entering graduate school, I was still troubled by the issue of how I was going to help the world.  I thought I could perhaps accomplish this by teaching psychology in a small liberal arts college, but graduate school taught me that my first love is research, and that has been my life story since. What I came to realize is that most researchers do not change the world in a direct and concrete way, but that the fruits of science have the potential for changing history in profound ways. The “hard” sciences, including chemistry and biology, have dramatically changed our world. However, it seemed to me a difficulty is that the behavioral sciences have lagged behind, so that most of the major problems now facing humanity are in fact problems in human behavior. The disproportionate advances in the physical sciences compared to the behavioral sciences have produced some major problems. Yet, if the behavioral sciences were successful, we could potentially solve the most important problems facing humanity.

I also came to realize that people usually contribute to the world most in areas where they are talented and in activities that they love. When talent and passion are combined, we are most effective. My hope is that my research will in some ways benefit humanity so that my parents will smile when looking down from heaven. I am certain that research is not for everyone, but for me it is a vocation and a passion. So readers, help the world by doing what you do best and love most.

Challenge 3: Overcoming Opposition to Subjective Well-Being Research

When I began conducting research on well-being, many scientists were skeptical, including a few older professors in my department. For one thing, they thought that it would be impossible to define and measure “happiness.” It always puzzled me that psychologists believed that depression and anxiety were measurable, but that positive states were not. Because several high-status professors in my department thought that studying happiness was a flaky endeavor, they blocked my promotion to full professor for a year or two.

The skepticism within my own department was a microcosm of the skepticism in the wider world of scientific psychology. When researchers presented studies showing the difficulties with measures of well-being, the findings were greeted with enthusiasm, whereas my studies showing the relative validity of the measures were often ignored. However, whereas many economists were actively hostile to the field, many psychologists simply ignored it. Thus, for many years I worked with very capable graduate students and we published frequently, but the topic of subjective well-being was a research area well off of the beaten path. In those early years of my research the area was not given much attention in any of the core subdisciplines, such as personality or social psychology, and classes on it were virtually nonexistent.

Finally, in the late 1990’s, interest in subjective well-being exploded. Part of this change was due to the attention it received from Daniel Kahneman, a renowned experimental psychologist who has won the Nobel Prize in economics. When Kahneman began to publish in the field, this alone helped the area gain respect. Similarly, when Martin Seligman raised the banner of “positive psychology,” his stature in clinical psychology and the attention he brought to the field of happiness helped greatly. David Myers, one of the best writers in psychology, wrote a book on the science of happiness that further helped legitimize the field. In addition, some economists became increasingly disenchanted with the reigning behavioristic and materialistic paradigm in their discipline, and they did interesting studies using measures of well-being.  Hopefully, the research that we and others conducted on subjective well-being helped to bring respect to the field; our aim was to use rigorous methods so that the field would gain credibility and become more than another self-help “pop” area.

It appears that in this first decade of the 21st century, subjective well-being has become firmly established as a science. My citation count has grown to over 11,000, and I have a citation H score of 42. This means that 42 of my articles are cited 42 or more times, meaning that lots of researchers are citing lots of our articles.  The total number of publications in this area has grown rapidly. Figure 1 presents the number of publications on well-being (including topics such as life satisfaction, happiness, and positive emotions) over the last several decades (with the figure for this decade based on a projection from the first five years). As can be seen, there are now 2000 publications per year in the area and climbing quickly. I have contributed almost 200 articles and books to the scholarly literature on subjective well-being. In the references I list 10 broad theory and conceptual articles that I believe have made important contributions to the field. I also list 10 empirical articles that I believe represent significant advances in knowledge. Because I have published so many empirical articles, it was difficult to select those that are most important.

Recently, my former students and research associates, headed by Randy Larsen and Michael Eid, wanted to plan a “Festschrift” for me – a celebration of my career at age 60. My response was, No Festschrift – those events are for old people. So they hosted a celebration with wonderful talks and a book, and they called it a non-Festschrift.  The non-Festschrift was one of the high points of my life, because it was so clear to me that important work was going on in the field, and that excellent scholarship will continue when I retire from the field.


I am one of the luckiest individuals in the world, because I discovered work I love, and found wonderful people with whom to share this work. On Fridays, I can say TGIF, because I look forward to spending a bit more time with my family, but on Mondays, I can say TGIM, “Thank goodness it is Monday,” because I love to conduct research and analyze data. In truth, there is no difference for me between weekdays and weekends because both include time with family and students, and both include research activities. Research is not a career for everyone, and not everyone need be a “maniac” researcher like I am.  There is ample room in the field for scientists who work at a much less intense level. However, I am positive that the most fulfilling life, whatever the particulars may be, is one in which a person can use his or her skills in activities he or she enjoys, and with supportive people with similar values and goals. May all of you find such a life!

Readers need one caveat in evaluating my autobiography. I know the results of the nun study showing that Catholic sisters who wrote more positive autobiographies lived longer than less happy nuns. Sarah Pressman has now replicated this finding with the autobiographies of psychologists, and found that the mention of activated positive feelings predicted a 6-year longer life. Therefore, I have written the most positive of autobiographies in hopes that I will live a very long life. However, writing such a positive autobiography has itself made me happy, and I hope others enjoy reading it, so they, too, can have a long and happy life.


10 Broad Theory and Review Articles on Well-Being

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542-575.

Diener, E., Lucas, R., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 305-314.

Diener, E., Sandvik, E., & Pavot, W. (1991). Happiness is the frequency, not the intensity, of positive versus negative affect. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 119-139). New York: Pergamon.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1-31.

Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.

Diener, E., & Tov, W. (in press). Culture and subjective well-being. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology. New York: Guilford.

Kahneman, D., Diener, E., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.). (1999). Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Sage.

Larsen, R. J., & Diener, E. (1987). Affect intensity as an individual difference characteristic: A review. Journal of Research in Personality, 21, 1-39.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Pavot, W., & Diener, E. (1993). Review of the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Psychological Assessment, 5, 164-172.

10 Significant Empirical Articles on Well-Being

Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2006). The subjective well-being of the homeless, and lessons for happiness.  Social Indicators Research, 76, 185-205.

Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181-185.

Diener, E., & Diener, M. (1995). Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 653-663.

Diener, E., & Emmons, R. A. (1985). The independence of positive and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1105-1117.

Eid, M., & Diener, E. (2001). Norms for experiencing emotions in different cultures: Inter- and intranational differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 869-885.

Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2001). Re-examining the general positivity model of subjective well-being: The discrepancy between specific and global domain satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 69, 641-666.

Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Seidlitz, L. (1993). Subjective well-being: The convergence and stability of self-report and non-self-report measures. Journal of Personality, 61, 317-342.

Schimmack, U., Diener, E., & Oishi, S. (2002). Life-satisfaction is a momentary judgment and a stable personality characteristic: The use of chronically accessible and stable sources. Journal of Personality, 70, 345-384.

Wirtz, D., Kruger, J., Scollon, C. N., & Diener, E. (2003). What to do on spring break? The role of predicted, on-line, and remembered experience in future choice. Psychological Science, 14, 520-524.

Ed Diener
Email address:
Faculty webpage:
Interests: Subjective Well-Being


3 thoughts on “Psych Bio: Ed Diener

  1. our Mental Energy Sphere is his latest work, and could qualify as a novelette – in that it is less than 20,000 words. Yet, to fully make use of this self-help guide, readers must allow space and time to contemplate what he is saying. Readers will benefit by reading this book slowly, at times when there are no distractions. Each sentence is valuable – no word is wasted, here. Using realistic tools such as deep introspection, evaluation and deduction, Shyam coaxes individuals to find their true happiness. Though Shyam provides the tools, he makes it clear that readers will have to take the steps that will ensure their own satisfaction in life.`

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