Diener et al's (1999) review in Psychological Bulletin provides an excellent entry point into the well-being literature. It reviews the literature with regards to the many causes and correlates of well-being.
First, individual differences explain a lot of variance in well-being. This is often seen in terms of personality traits such as neuroticism and extraversion (e.g., see the huge meta-analysis of DeNeve and Cooper, 1998). People with low neuroticism and high extraversion tend to experience more well-being. In relation to social comparison, it may be that these personality traits influence lenses of social comparisons both in terms of the standards that are set and how circumstances are appraised relative to those circumstances.
Discrepancy theories and social comparison
I recommend reading page 282 and 283 of Diener et al (1999) where the authors review discrepancy and social comparison theories in relation to subjective well-being. First the authors mention an early discrepancy theory by Michalos:
According to Michalos's theory, individuals compare themselves to
multiple standards including other people, past conditions,
aspirations and ideal levels of satisfaction, and needs or goals.
Satisfaction judgments are then based on discrepancies between current
conditions and these standards. A discrepancy that involves an upward
comparison (i.e., where the comparison standard is higher) will result
in decreased satisfaction, whereas a downward comparison will result
in increased satisfaction.
The authors then discuss how subsequent research has shown the situation to be more complex than originally conceptualised: e.g.,
- There is a degree of flexibility in which social comparisons we adopt.
- Adopting high expectations and thereby creating a discrepancy does not necessarily induce lower well-being, especially if people feel like they are making progress towards theirs goals.
- Comparisons are not just social, but can come from a variety of sources.
- There's a difference between short-term and more enduring effects on well-being.
Superiority versus positive social comparison
It is also worth making a distinction between a positive social comparison and superiority. We might see a positive social comparison as an evaluation of life circumstances as better than some comparison group. In contrast superiority can be quite close to arrogance. Taken to its extreme we can see superiority as an element in narcissism (e.g., "Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements" DSM IV-TR). When the basis of such positive self-evaluations is fragile, I believe this can be related to lower or more volatile self-esteem.
Although you mention that it is perception, there is research on various measures that you mention. To take a couple:
- intelligence: Several meta-analyses suggest the relationship is fairly minimal (e.g., Sigelman, 1981; Wilson, 1967)
- social status - income: Diener et al discuss how the relationship between income and well-being is modest at best.
Primal Factors and Brains
I'm not sure how necessary it is to think of the process in terms of brains. Certainly the process of well-being at some level must be explained in terms of biological processes, but I'm not sure if such a level of explanation is required to understand the relationship between social comparison and well-being.
You might want to read about evolutionary perspectives to well-being.
For example, Grinde (2002) discusses this perspective (See reference and PDF below).
Activating without external circumstances
There is a lot of research in positive psychology on how to attain happiness.
A starting point could be to look at Seligman's ideas around three paths to happiness. Perhaps check out this TED talk by Martin Seligman
- DeNeve, K.M. & Cooper, H. (1998). The happy personality: a meta-analysis of 137 personality traits and subjective well-being.. Psychological bulletin, 124, 197. PDF
- Diener, E., Suh, E.M., Lucas, R.E. & Smith, H.L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress.. Psychological bulletin, 125, 276. PDF
- Grinde, B. (2002). Happiness in the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 331-354. PDF
- Michalos, A. C. (1985). Multiple discrepancies theory (MDT) Social
Indicators Research, 16, 347-413.
- Sigelman, L. (1981). Is ignorance bliss? A reconsideration of the folk
wisdom. Human Relations, 34, 965-974.
- Wilson, W. (1967). Correlates of avowed happiness. Psychological Bulletin, 67, 294-306.