Social Indicators Research

, Volume 140, Issue 2, pp 837–866 | Cite as

A Theory of Life Satisfaction Dynamics: Stability, Change and Volatility in 25-Year Life Trajectories in Germany

  • Bruce HeadeyEmail author
  • Ruud Muffels


An adequate theory of life satisfaction (LS) needs to take account of both factors that tend to stabilise LS and those that change it. The most widely accepted theory in the recent past—set-point theory—focussed solely on stability (Brickman and Campbell, in: Appley (ed) Adaptation level theory, Academic Press, New York, pp 287–302, 1971; Lykken and Tellegen in Psychol Sci 7:186–189, 1996). That theory is now regarded as inadequate by most researchers, given that national panel surveys in several Western countries show that substantial minorities of respondents have recorded large, long term changes in LS (Sheldon and Lucas in The stability of happiness, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2014). In this paper we set out a preliminary revised theory, based mainly on analysis of the LS trajectories of the 2473 respondents in the German Socio-Economic Panel who reported their LS for 25 consecutive years in 1990–2014. The theory entails three sets of propositions in which we attempt to account for stability, change and also volatility. First, it is proposed that stability is primarily due to stable personality traits, and also to parental influence on LS. The second set of propositions indicates that medium and long term changes are due to differences and changes in personal values/life priorities and behavioural choices. Differences in the priority given to pro-social values, family values and materialistic values affect LS, as do behavioural choices relating to one’s partner, physical exercise, social participation and networks, church attendance, and the balance between work and leisure. Medium term change is reinforced by two-way causation—positive feedback loops—between values, behavioural choices and LS. The third set of propositions breaks new ground in seeking to explain inter-individual differences in the volatility/variability of LS over time; why some individuals display high volatility and others low, even though their mean level of LS may change little over 25 years.


Medium and long term LS change Trajectories of LS Set-point theory Volatility of LS German Socio-Economic Panel 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social ResearchUniversity of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia
  2. 2.School of Social and Behavioral SciencesTilburg UniversityTilburgThe Netherlands

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