Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 183–206 | Cite as

A Demonstration of Set-Points for Subjective Wellbeing

  • Robert A. CumminsEmail author
  • Ning Li
  • Mark Wooden
  • Mark Stokes
Research Paper


This paper presents evidence for the existence of ‘set-points’ for subjective wellbeing. Our results derive from a 10-year longitudinal study in which subjective wellbeing has been measured using a single question of general life satisfaction. The process of data analysis is driven by logic based on the theory of subjective wellbeing homeostasis. This analysis involves the iterative elimination of raw data, from 7,356 individual respondents, based on confidence limits. All results are projected onto a 0–100 point scale. We demonstrate evidence for the existence of set-points lying between 71 and 90 points, with an average set-point-range of 18–20 points for each person. The implications and limitations of these findings are discussed.


Subjective wellbeing Homeostasis Set-points Genetic 



The research reported on in this paper has been supported, in part, by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (#DP1095497) and uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and view reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to FaHCSIA or the Melbourne Institute. We thank Ann-Marie James for her assistance in the preparation of this manuscript. We also thank Robert Connor and Linda Hartley-Clark for their suggestions regarding the text.


  1. Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being: American’s perceptions of life quality. New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Block, J. (1981). Some enduring and consequential structures of personality. In A. I. Rabin, J. Aronoff, A. M. Barclay, & R. A. Zucker (Eds.), Further explorations in personality (pp. 27–43). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  3. Blore, J. D., Stokes, M. A., Mellor, D., Firth, L., & Cummins, R. A. (2011). Comparing multiple discrepancies theory to affective models of subjective wellbeing. Social Indicators Research, 100, 1–16. doi: 10.1007/s11205-010-9599-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–302). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917–927.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brim, G., & Kagan, J. (1980). Constancy and change in human development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Cannon, W. B. (1932). The wisdom of the body. New York, NY: Norton.Google Scholar
  8. Clark, A. E., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. Economic Journal, 118, F222–F243. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0297.2008.02150.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. (1980). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being: Happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 668–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1984). Personality as a lifelong determinant of wellbeing. In C. Z. Malatesta & C. E. Izard (Eds.), Emotion in adult development (pp. 141–157). Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  11. Cummins, R. A. (1995). On the trail of the gold standard for life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 35, 179–200. doi: 10.1007/BF01079026.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cummins, R. A. (1998). The second approximation to an international standard of life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 43, 307–334. doi: 10.1023/A:1006831107052.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cummins, R. A. (2000). Personal income and subjective well-being: A review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1, 133–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cummins, R. A. (2010). Subjective wellbeing, homeostatically protected mood and depression: A synthesis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 1–17. doi: 10.1007/s10902-009-9167-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cummins, R. A., Lau, A. D. L., & Davern, M. (2012). Subjective wellbeing homeostasis. In K. C. Land, A. Michalos, & J. Sirgy (Eds.), Handbook of social indicators and quality-of-life studies (Vol. I, pp. 79–98)., Theoretical and methodological foundations New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cummins, R. A., Woerner, J., Gibson, A., Lai, L., Weinberg, M., & Collard, J. (2008). Australian unity wellbeing index: Report 19.0. In The wellbeing of AustraliansLinks with exercise, nicotine and alcohol. Retrieved September 26, 2012, from
  17. Cummins, R. A., Woerner, J., Hartley-Clark, L., Perera, C., Collard, J., & Horfiniak, K. C. (2011). Australian unity wellbeing index—Report 26.0. In The wellbeing of Australianschronic health. Retrieved September 26, 2012, from
  18. Cummins, R. A., & Wooden, M. (in press). Resilience in times of crisis: The implications of SWB homeostasis and set-points. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-013-9481-4.
  19. Davern, M., Cummins, R. A., & Stokes, M. (2007). Subjective wellbeing as an affective/cognitive construct. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 429–449. doi: 10.1007/s10902-007-9066-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Deinzer, R., Steyer, R., Eid, M., Notz, P., Schwenkmezger, P., Ostendorf, F., et al. (1995). Situational effects in trait assessment: The FPI, NEOFFI, and EPI questionnaires. European Journal of Personality, 9, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 305–314. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Eid, M., & Diener, E. (2004). Global judgments of subjective well-being: Situational variability and long-term stability. Social Indicators Research, 65, 245–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 302–329). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  25. Frijters, P., Johnston, D. W., & Shields, M. A. (2011). Life satisfaction dynamics with quarterly life event data. Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 113, 190–211. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9442.2010.01638.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fujita, F., & Diener, E. (2005). Life satisfaction set point: Stability and change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 158–164. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.1.158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hartmann, G. W. (1934). Personality traits associated with variations in happiness. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 29, 202–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Headey, B. (2010). The set point theory of well-being has serious flaws: On the eve of a scientific revolution. Social Indicators Research, 97, 7–21. doi: 10.1007/s11205-009-9559-x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Headey, B., Muffels, R., & Wagner, G. G. (2010). Long-running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes, matter for happiness. PNAS, 107, 17922–17926. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008612107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Headey, B., Muffels, R., & Wagner, G. G. (2012). Choices which change life satisfaction: Similar results for Australia, Britain and Germany. Social Indicators Research. doi,. doi: 10.1007/s11205-012-0079-8.Google Scholar
  31. Headey, B., & Wearing, A. (1989). Personality, life events, and subjective well-being: Toward a dynamic equilibrium model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 731–739. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.57.4.731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Headey, B., & Wearing, A. (1992). Understanding happiness: A theory of subjective well-being. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.Google Scholar
  33. Jackson, D. N., & Paunonen, S. V. (1980). Personality structure and assessment. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 503–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Keesey, R. E., & Powley, T. L. (1986). The regulation of body weight. Annual Review of Psychology, 37, 109–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Keyes, C. L. M., Myers, J. M., & Kendler, K. S. (2010). The structure of the genetic and environmental influences on mental well-being. American Journal of Public Health, 100, 2379–2384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lucas, R. E. (2005). Time does not heal all wounds: A longitudinal study of reaction and adapation to divorce. Psychological Science, 16, 945–950. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01642.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lucas, R. E. (2007). Long-term disability is associated with lasting changes in subjective well-being: Evidence from two nationally representative longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 717–730. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 15, 8–13. doi: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.01501002.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McGue, M., Bacon, S., & Lykken, D. T. (1993). Personality stability and change in early adulthood: A behavioural genetic analysis. Developmental Psychology, 29, 96–109. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.29.1.96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Murrell, S. A., & Himmelfarb, S. (1989). Effects of attachment bereavement and pre-event conditions on subsequent depressive symptoms in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 4, 166–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Okun, M. A., Olding, R. W., & Cohn, C. M. (1990). A meta-analysis of subjective well-being interventions among elders. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 257–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Oswald, A. J., & Powdthavee, N. J. (2008). Does happiness adapt? A longitudinal study of disability with implications for economists and judges. Journal of Public Economics, 92, 1061–1077. doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2008.01.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Palmore, E., & Kivett, V. (1977). Change in life satisfaction: A longitudinal study of persons aged 46–70. Journal of Gerontology, 32, 311–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sailer, R. C. (1931). Happiness self-estimates of young men. Teachers College Contribution to Education, 467.Google Scholar
  46. Scollon, C. N., & Diener, E. (2006). Love, work, and changes in extraversion and neuroticism over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 1152–1165. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.6.1152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Smith, H. C. (1961). Personality adjustment. New York: McGraw-Hill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tellegen, A., Lykken, D. T., Bouchard, T. J. J., Wilcox, K., Segal, N., & Rich, S. (1988). Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1031–1039.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tomyn, A. J., & Cummins, R. A. (2011). Subjective wellbeing and homeostatically protected mood: Theory validation with adolescents. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 897–914. doi: 10.1007/s10902-010-9235-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Watson, G. B. (1930). Happiness among adult students of education. Journal of Educational Psychology, 21, 79–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Watson, N., & Wooden, M. (2002). The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey: Wave 1 Survey Methodology HILDA Project Technical Paper Series No. 1/02. Retrieved from Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.Google Scholar
  52. Watson, N., & Wooden, M. (2012). The HILDA Survey: A case study in the design and development of a successful household panel study. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 3(3), 369–381.Google Scholar
  53. Wessman, A. E., & Ricks, D. F. (1966). Mood and personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
  54. Williams, D. E., & Thompson, J. K. (1993). Biology and behavior: A set-point hypothesis of psychological functioning. Behaviour Modification, 17, 43–57. doi: 10.1177/01454455930171004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wilson, W. (1967). Correlates of avowed happiness. Psychological Bulletin, 67, 294–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wortman, C., & Silver, R. (1982). Coping with undesirable life events. In paper presented at the 90th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert A. Cummins
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ning Li
    • 2
  • Mark Wooden
    • 2
  • Mark Stokes
    • 1
  1. 1.School of PsychologyDeakin UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social ResearchUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations