Remembering Ed Diener

Date

06/07/21

By Dov Cohen.

If someday nations are judged not just by their Gross National Product but also by how much they have allowed people to lead happy, fulfilling lives, the world will in part have Ed Diener to thank.

Ed taught at the University of Illinois from 1974 to 2008.  He passed away in April of this year,  but the revolution he helped start in the social sciences -- taking happiness and life satisfaction seriously – will continue on.

Ed graduated from California State University, Fresno and, after earning a PhD from the University of Washington, turned down a job at Harvard to come to Champaign. Distinguishing himself early on as one of psychology’s most creative and leading researchers on deindividuation (the tendency of people to behave badly when they lose awareness of themselves as an individual), Diener took a sabbatical and decided to study well-being and happiness.  At the time this was a fringe topic (how could this be studied scientifically? Why would you even want to?) and Diener was advised to stay away from the topic, because it would risk his credibility as a researcher.

Undeterred, Diener started studying the topic and produced research that made him the world’s leading expert on the subject.  Officially, he was the aptly named Joseph R. Smiley Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois.  Unofficially, he is widely known as “Dr. Happiness.”

University of Illinois undergraduates may remember him for his popular lectures in the Psychology of Personality that would draw close to 500 students.  Illinois graduate students will remember him as a wise, caring, and genial mentor, who taught them about the science of psychology, the fun of research, and his affirming approach to life.  His graduate students went on to become tenured professors at major universities, including the University of Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis, University of California, Purdue, University of Toronto, Michigan State University, and leading universities in Israel, Korea, and Singapore.  With his students and collaborators, Ed produced 340 books and articles, and his work has been cited over 250,000 times, according to a count by Google Scholar in April, 2021.

Ed was the lead researcher on projects that collected data on happiness from countries all over the world, including a project done with Gallup surveying people from 155 nations.  He was concerned with people’s well-being and happiness not simply in developed Western countries but among people from disparate cultures and circumstances.  With his son Robert Biswas-Diener – nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” – he collected data in the Artic Circle of Northern Greenland, among the Amish, in the poorest urban areas of India, and with Maasai tribespeople in rural East Africa.

Ed’s work uncovered a variety of factors influencing happiness, including those due to personality (extroverts generally tend to be happier than other people – even when they are not with others); human adaptation (in a famous paper co-authored with his wife Carol, they found that most people – even in difficult circumstances – are mildly happy); major life events (losing a spouse or unemployment even for relatively short periods can alter some people’s “set point” for happiness); and culture (self-esteem is much more important for people who live in individualist cultures than it is for people who live in more collectivistic cultures, such as East Asia).

Regarding the latter point, Ed (along with Carol and daughter Marissa) also studied what aspects of culture correlated with happiness.  They found that the cultural dimension of individualism-collectivism – on which pioneering work was done by Ed’s long-time Illinois colleague, the eminent scholar Harry Triandis – was a sizable positive predictor of a country’s happiness.

The work should not be interpreted to mean that self-focus is good, however.  In fact, across cultures, one of the most important predictors of happiness is having fulfilling social relationships.  This is a factor that Diener knew about both professionally and personally.  People in the psychology department remember Ed as a genial and generous colleague, an outstanding mentor, and perhaps above all, a family man. (Asked once by a female professor at University of Washington whether he had an “open marriage,” Diener replied yes, believing the question to be about honesty but then later recanting when he realized the actual meaning of the question, according to his autobiography).

Though he routinely put in eighty-hour weeks, Ed made time for family, dropping other superfluous activities. “I can’t imagine an episode of Seinfeld that is as good as analyzing data or as spending time with my kids,” he wrote.  In terms of the former, when he learned of a study that found that women in Texas rated sex as their most rewarding activity, Ed’s response was that “I believe that is because they have never analyzed data.”  Regarding the latter, he truly loved spending time with his family and sometimes found a way to merge both his passions for psychology and family – and not simply by getting his kids to help him collect beer bottles for subjects to throw in his early deindividuation studies.

Carol – also a popular instructor in University of Illinois’s psychology department and a person who Ed said “has more insight into people than any psychologist I have ever met”– was his high school sweetheart.   They raised five children – twins Mary Beth (who now teaches psychology at University of Kentucky) and Marissa (who now teaches psychology at University of Utah),  Robert, Sue, Kia, as well as three foster children.  The Dieners were such proud, doting parents and grandparents that a colleague joked that he was never sure if “The Diener Grandchildren Museum” was a metaphor or was an actual physical place that they had built.

In talking about Ed’s eminent scholarly accomplishments and his generosity and devotion to others, it might be easy to overlook another aspect of Ed’s personality:  He was FUN.  “I always lit up when I talked with Ed,” said University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, who is himself noted as one of psychology’s most charismatic personalities.  People in the department will remember Ed (along with longtime colleagues Gerald Clore and Robert Wyer) for his gift-giving of the Social and Personality Award of Merit (complete with SPAM gift certificates and SPAM box coinbanks), the SPAM-carving contests, the lively parties he and Carol hosted, raucous laughter, and priceless storytelling and humor.  Ed was an expert at making lemons from lemonade.  When someone at a party spilled red wine on the white carpet in his home, he turned it into an experiment to examine who had the best method for removing the stain.  (The technique may have involved white wine.  But because the experiment was never written up, it is lost to history).

Ed’s research along with articles such as “Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being” brought him into contact with important world leaders and policymakers and lead Ed to advocate for measuring and targeting national well-being as a matter of policy, in addition to the usual economic measures such as GDP.  Ed and his co-authors noted that economic output has risen dramatically over the past several decades in the West.  Well-being, on the other hand, has not budged. “I argue,” he wrote in his autobiography, “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.”

Beyond his policy advocacy, Ed, Carol, and colleagues created Noba Well-Being, a free course to raise well-being by teaching people various skills and finding their strengths.  Interested readers may download a copy of the course at https://nobawellbeing.com/ .  Those wanting to learn more about Ed’s work may consult his scholarly articles or his book aimed at a more general audience, co-authored with his son Robert, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.  A quick overview of his work may be found in  his 2017 article “Findings all psychologists should know from the new science on subjective well being” (accessible at https://eddiener.com/articles/925)  or from an older (2013) site http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~ediener/discoveries.html.  Those wishing to learn more about psychology in general can consult the free educational textbook that Ed and Carol organized (including some chapters by University of Illinois professors and alums) at https://nobaproject.com/.

Noba was just one part of Ed and Carol’s charitable giving. In his autobiography, Diener wrote, “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.”  The Dieners always charted a course of bold goals and activities – and made good on them.

 

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