Edward Diener, Psychologist Known as Dr. Happiness, Dies at 74
Since the 1980s, he was recognized as a leader in measuring what he called “subjective well-being.” And, yes, he was very happy.,
Edward Diener, a playful social psychologist who was nicknamed Dr. Happiness for his pioneering research into what defined contentment, died on April 27 at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 74.
The cause was bladder cancer, his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, said. His death had not been widely reported.
Dr. Diener brought legitimacy and scientific rigor to a field that had been largely uncharted when he began his research in the 1980s at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Misery, sadness and fear had long been more fertile subjects of psychological study than happiness.
Happiness “sounds flaky, kind of frivolous,” Dr. Diener said in 2017.
“But what we’re talking about,” he continued, “is sustainable happiness — what you get from your family, work, meaning and purpose, having goals and values. Well-being is much, much more than having fun.”
Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Positive Psychology Center, who sometimes collaborated on research with Dr. Diener, recalled the influence Dr. Diener had on him.
“I was from the misery/suffering cohort and was taken in by Freud and Schopenhauer saying the best you can do is not be miserable,” he said in a phone interview. “But Ed said, ‘No, there’s something above zero, there’s happiness, and you can measure it.'”
In about 400 articles written on his own or with others, Dr. Diener became the leading researcher in the science of measuring happiness — or, as he called it, “subjective well-being.”
He found that money can bring happiness, but only up to a certain income level; that genetics play a role in one’s satisfaction with one’s life; that having a few strong, intimate social relationships is critical to happiness; and that cultural norms influence what people believe happiness is and how to pursue it.
In a 2002 study of college undergraduates published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr. Diener and Dr. Seligman identified 22 students who scored in the top 10 percent on various measures of happiness. They then compared them with 60 others who scored average in happiness, and 24 others who measured as very unhappy.
The happiest students were more social; spent less time alone; had strong relationships with friends, family and lovers; and almost never thought of suicide. Dr. Diener and Dr. Seligman found, though, that a rich social life did not guarantee happiness. Some of the most unhappy students said that they had good relationships.
Dr. Diener said that even the happiest students had bad days and could be moody, which showed that their emotional systems were working properly.
“Virtually none of them are at a 10, and nobody stays at a 10,” he told The New York Times after the study was published. “So many people say, ‘I want to be happier than I am now.’ There is this expectation of being super happy.”
Dr. Diener was an extremely happy man. He was known for hosting parties that included activities like carving Spam into various shapes and walking on glass, and for hiding cash in the pages of books for his family to find. He once greeted his son’s wife’s sister in full pirate regalia, wearing a beard and using a hook for an arm that he bade her to shake.
“Then he excused himself, came back as Ed Diener and never mentioned it again,” his son, who followed his father into happiness research, said in a phone interview. “He was cut from a different cloth.”
Edward Francis Diener was born on July 25, 1946, in Glendale, Calif. His father, Frank, was a farmer, and his mother, Mary Alice (Ferry) Diener, was a homemaker.
A curious, adventurous youngster, he said he once threw a rock at a swarm of bees to see what they would do. As a teenager, he climbed the Golden Gate Bridge and experimented with gunpowder, gasoline and fire.
His father wanted Edward to follow him into farming. But studying agriculture at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) bored him, and he became interested in psychology.
Before graduating in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he proposed a research project exploring the happiness of migrant farm workers, some of whom he knew from his family’s farm. But his professor rejected the idea, declaring that farm workers as a group were unhappy and that there was no way to measure happiness. So Dr. Diener chose another subject: conformity.
A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Dr. Diener worked as an administrator at a small psychiatric hospital before resuming his studies at the University of Washington, where he earned a Ph.D. in psychology in 1974. He soon joined the faculty at the University of Illinois.
As a graduate student and a young professor, Dr. Diener performed research on deindividuation, the loss of self-awareness in groups. He did not study happiness until the early 1980s, a shift that he said was partly influenced by his optimistic parents.
“My mother presented me with books such as Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking,’ and this piqued my interest,” he said in an autobiographical essay written for the book “Journeys in Social Psychology” (2008), edited by Robert Levine, Lynnette Zelezny and Aroldo Rodrigues. “My mother told me that even criticism could be framed in a positive way.”
Dr. Diener developed several ways to measure well-being. One of them, the Satisfaction With Life Scale, consists of five statements that were posed to respondents, in small and large studies, like “In most ways my life is close to my ideal” and “The conditions of my life are excellent.” The respondents were asked to answer each on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
Another, the Flourishing Scale, asks people to rank, also from 1 to 7, statements like “I lead a purposeful and meaningful life” and “My social relationships are supportive and rewarding.”
With his son, Dr. Diener wrote “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth” (2008).
Dr. Diener, who retired from the University of Illinois in 2009, subsequently resumed teaching psychology at the University of Utah and the University of Virginia.
He won the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 2012. He also consulted with the governments of Singapore and Dubai, where he served on a subcommittee of the World Happiness Council, a think tank formed by the emirate’s ruler in 2017.
Dr. Diener believed that governments needed metrics to guide policies that would improve society.
“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,” he wrote in his autobiographical essay.
In addition to his son, Dr. Diener is survived by his wife, Carol (Merk) Diener, who is also a psychologist; their daughters, Marissa Diener, Mary Beth Diener McGavran, Kia Solorzano and Susan Watson; and 12 grandchildren.
Dr. Diener loved examining data and said he was content to keep researching without arriving at any final conclusions.
“My father would say, ‘Maybe in 100 years we’ll have a comprehensive theory of happiness,'” his son said. “‘Let’s just observe, chart happiness and not rush it.'”