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Life Goals Matter to Happiness: A Revision of Set-Point Theory

Abstract

Using data from the long-running German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP), this paper provides evidence that life goals matter substantially to subjective well-being (SWB). Non-zero sum goals, which include commitment to family, friends and social and political involvement, promote life satisfaction. Zero sum goals, including commitment to career success and material gains, appear detrimental to life satisfaction. Finding that conscious life goals matter can potentially make an important contribution to SWB theory. The most widely accepted theory—set-point or dynamic equilibrium theory—essentially claims that set-points are near-automatic consequences of hereditary characteristics, including personality traits. Life goals play no role in these theories and major life events are viewed as having only a transitory effect. The SOEP panel data show that, over a 15–20 year period, non-trivial minorities record substantial changes in their set-points. This paper shows linkages between these changes and (a) the personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism and internal locus of control and (b) choice of life goals.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    There is some debate about whether complete (100%) adaptation occurs. This is Easterlin’s view. An alternative account suggests that adaptation is typically about 70% (Frey and Stutzer 2002).

  2. 2.

    Easterlin’s view is that Mehnert et al’s (1990) results, because they are based on a large scale panel study, are clearly preferably to the results reported in studies which show nearly complete adaptation to disability (see above).

  3. 3.

    Ten items were included in 1990 and 1995 and then nine in 2004. The item dropped in 2004 related to the importance of having a wide circle of friends, which loaded on the altruism factor.

  4. 4.

    The item relating to ‘fulfillment’ seemed borderline in terms of face validity but loaded so strongly on the success factor in 1990, 1995 and 2004 that it was decided to retain it.

  5. 5.

    The item ‘having a circle of friends’ was included in 1990 and 1995 and also loaded on this factor.

  6. 6.

    However, as is often the case, results using factor scores were somewhat weaker (smaller effect sizes).

  7. 7.

    In practice, however, regression coefficients for the three indices were quite similar whether they were split at the mean or whether the full scale was used.

  8. 8.

    These correlations are based on the 1–4 importance scales rather than a dichotomized index. Similarly, the correlation for life satisfaction is based on the full 0–10 scale.

  9. 9.

    However, this may not be true of internal locus of control, which seems more likely to be modified by experience (Rotter 1966).

  10. 10.

    The measure of income used is household disposable income adjusted for household size; i.e. equalized using the OECD equivalence scale of 1.0 for the household reference person, 0.5 for other adults and 0.3 for children under 15.

  11. 11.

    Only the first of the two equations in Table 2 is reproduced for these sub-groups. Results were little different with extra ‘controls’, as in the second of the equations.

  12. 12.

    A person could, of course, have competitive non-zero sum goals with regard to marriage; e.g. wanting to marry a wealthy heiress.

  13. 13.

    Job satisfaction has been included in SOEP from inception, but in the present context it is an ambiguous life domain, since it offers prospects of achieving both success goals, and (at least for some people) altruistic goals. Satisfaction with family life was introduced for the first time in 2006.

  14. 14.

    In principle the results in Table 4 could be subject to selection bias in that the sub-samples differ. That is, results are given for the different sub-sets of respondents who had partners, children and a job. It should be noted that a separate run, restricting the sample to those who gave responses for all life satisfaction and all four life domains, yielded almost identical results.

  15. 15.

    As with previous measures of life goals, these average scores have been dichotomized at the mean for inclusion in regression equations.

  16. 16.

    The mean score on the measure of persistence in pursuit of family goals (1–4 scale) was 3.43 with a standard deviation of 0.52. The mean score on change in life satisfaction (0–10 scale) was —0.62 with a standard deviation of 1.46.

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Gert Wagner, Director of the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP), for encouraging work on this paper and commenting extensively on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Alexander Wearing of Melbourne University for his comments on an earlier version.

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Correspondence to Bruce Headey.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Table 6 Bivariate Pearson correlations among main variables

Appendix 2

Table 7 Factor analysis of life goals in SOEP 1990: varimax rotation (N = 6,319)
Table 8 Factor analysis of life goals in SOEP 1995: varimax rotation (N = 10,295)
Table 9 Impact of life goals on life satisfaction 1990: ordinary least squares regressions
Table 10 Impact of life goals on life satisfaction 1995: ordinary least squares regressions

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Headey, B. Life Goals Matter to Happiness: A Revision of Set-Point Theory. Soc Indic Res 86, 213–231 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-007-9138-y

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Keywords

  • Life goals
  • Happiness
  • Subjective well-being
  • Set-point theory