Set-Point Theory and Societal Collapse: The Case of Russia

Abstract

Can a society’s overall level of happiness change? Until recently, it was widely held that happiness fluctuates around set-points, so that neither individuals nor societies can lastingly increase their happiness. However, data from surveys carried out in Russia from 1982 to 2011 show that happiness fell substantially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has begun to rise again only recently. Additional data sources, including suicide rates and indices of negative affect expression, confirm these shifts. Contrary to set-point theory, we find that the recent increase has been driven as much by generational replacement as by mean reversion among individuals. The collapse of communism led to a permanent drop in subjective wellbeing among mid-life cohorts that was subsequently never fully recovered. Happiness can be substantially and permanently impacted by life-events, including those affecting society as a whole, and societal-level happiness can rise or fall over time as a result.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Data for the 1990, 1995, 2006 and 2011 surveys are available in the aggregate WVS file at www.worldvaluessurvey.org, while data for the 1999 survey is included in the European Values Study aggregate file (http://www.europeanvaluesstudy.eu/page/survey-1999.html).

  2. 2.

    One proxy for subjective affect can be gleaned from frequency of word citation (Michel et al. 2011). The most common method of doing so is via the “n-gram” a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech, which can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs. The n-gram model is a type of probabilistic language model for predicting the next item in such a sequence in the form of a Markov model, and such models are now widely used in probability, communication theory, computational linguistics, computational biology, and data compression. We use the Russian language search of the Google Ngram database, which covers all books predominantly in the Russian language; for the period under consideration, these are overwhelmingly soviet publications (Google 2010). The coverage of this database is exceptionally broad; within the English language corpus, for example, are as many as 4% of all published English language texts over the past two centuries. The results are normalised by the number of texts published in each year, thereby ensuring results are indicative of relative frequency and not affected by the obvious increase in publication material over time.

  3. 3.

    The subjective wellbeing index is calculated by rescaling both the life satisfaction score (1–10) and the happiness response (1–4) to a 0–10 range, and then averaging across the two measures, providing a combined 0–10 index of subjective wellbeing.

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Acknowledgements

Financial support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and from the Government of the Russian Federation within the 5-100 program roadmap of the National Research University, Higher School of Economics is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Roberto Stefan Foa.

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Foa, R.S., Inglehart, R., Ponarin, E. et al. Set-Point Theory and Societal Collapse: The Case of Russia. J Happiness Stud 19, 1639–1656 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9888-4

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Keywords

  • Russia
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction
  • Religiosity
  • Belief systems
  • Subjective well-being
  • World Values Survey