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Zooming in on Life Events: Is Hedonic Adaptation Sensitive to the Temporal Distance from the Event?

Abstract

This paper analyzed the effect of major positive and negative life events (marriage, divorce, birth of child, widowhood, and unemployment) on life satisfaction. For the first time, this study estimated the effects of life events not with a precision of 12 months but of 3 months. Specifically, two questions were addressed: (1) Does the precision of the temporal localization of the event (i.e., 12 or 3 months) affect the observed trajectories of life satisfaction, and (2) is the precision of the temporal localization more important for negative life events? As expected, results showed that the precision of temporal localization allows a clearer view on hedonic adaptation, in particular following negative life events.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. To our knowledge, only Frijters et al. (2011) apply quarterly timing of life events to large-scale panel data (HILDA); they do not focus, though, on the comparison of yearly and quarterly measurements.

  2. On the other hand, Zimmermann and Easterlin (2006) apply different models to the same dataset (GSOEP) and report that individuals who remain married for 2 or more years do not go back to their pre-marriage baseline but rather remain at a higher level.

  3. Moreover, continuous exposure to unemployment may evoke sensitization - an increase of the initial reaction rather than adaptation (Frederick and Loewenstein 1999; Luhmann and Eid 2009).

  4. For women.

  5. Given that the data in the cited sources were collected at different decades of the twentieth century, one may also hypothesize that, incidentally, cohort effects may play a role.

  6. I.e. within 2 years following the loss of spouse, SBW increases significantly from one 6-month period to another. This pattern does not apply to divorce. This study takes into account only 2 years after divorce/widowhood; it is plausible that time becomes a predictor if longer time span is considered.

  7. More precisely, for women, anticipation of unemployment, birth of child and layoff lasts for about 1 year, whereas men anticipate divorce for 3 years, marriage and widowhood—for 2 years. In females, there are no lead effects in cases of marriage and birth of child, unemployment is anticipated for about 1 year, widowhood—for 3 years and divorce—for 4 years.

  8. The picture is, however, more complicated. Research on repeated life events reveals, in fact, different patterns of well-being dynamics; in case of repeated unemployment we observe sensitization rather than adaptation, whereas repeated marriages remain as good as the first one, whereas second divorces evokes weaker response than the first one (Luhmann and Eid 2009). Apparently, individual normality intertwines with other factors.

  9. To analyze the anticipatory stage of adaptation process.

  10. The first interview after the event took place.

  11. Since the time span between two interviews is sometimes less than 12 months, it happens than an individual appears in two groups, i.e. once in the group of respondents who will experience an event in 10–12 months, and again in the group of those who will experience it within 3 months after the interview. The numbers of such cases is small: 17 for marriage, 5 for divorce, 13 for unemployment, 15 for birth of child, and 10 for widowhood.

  12. If, for example, the sample were split into two equal halves, the problem of too small cell sized would have been encountered. In fact, even with 2/3 of the whole sample we encounter this problem in two subgroups in the case of unemployment.

  13. Tables 3 and 4 present estimates obtained on the whole sample. The coefficients obtained with split sample provide virtually the same results.

  14. With respect to the relationship between control variables and SWB, our findings, in general, support the exitant literature. Having health problems, being widowed (as compared to being single), being unemployed, having an unemployed partner, and higher number of children affect SWB negatively. Being married (as compared to being single), and higher household income are positively related to SWB.

  15. *** Significant at 0.01; ** Significant at 0.05; * Significant at 0.1.

  16. Even though divorce might be the exit from an unhappy marriage, its short-term consequences, as well as the period of anticipation, are associated with lower life satisfaction.

  17. This brings us to the question whether events as discrete points are good markers of a critical loss or gain: if an event as such is a critical marker of change in SWB, how wide are the time brackets that limit the initial reaction?.

  18. Even though, improvement in SWB can also be observed right after death of the partner; usually, such trajectory is characteristic for cases of long-term care.

  19. Although there are highly predictable cases of caring for a sick partner, as mentioned above, uncertainty regarding the exact timing of the loss still persists.

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Acknowledgments

Preparation of this manuscript was carried out as a part of the doctoral work of the first author within the graduate program of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS; funded by the German Research Foundation DFG). We thank Reinhard Schunk and Liuben Siarov for their comments on the analytic strategy of the study. We also wish to acknowledge helpful comments received during the review process.

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Correspondence to Ekaterina A. Uglanova.

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 6.

Table 6 The distribution of life satisfaction ratings in the SOEP subsample of western Germans, 1984–2007

Appendix 2

See Table 7.

Table 7 Adaptation to life events

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Uglanova, E.A., Staudinger, U.M. Zooming in on Life Events: Is Hedonic Adaptation Sensitive to the Temporal Distance from the Event?. Soc Indic Res 111, 265–286 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-012-0004-1

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Keywords

  • Subjective well-being
  • Adaptation
  • Life events