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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Many of the findings reported here have been replicated in other large panel studies, notably the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey Australia (HILDA), and the Victorian Quality of Life Panel Survey (Headey and Wearing 1992). Citations to these surveys are included where appropriate.

  2. 2.

    Later in the paper we will refer to an individual’s mean LS rating for the entire 1990–2014 period as his/her Grand Mean of LS. An individual’s standard deviation for the entire period is his/her Grand Standard Deviation.

  3. 3.

    We use the terms ‘pro-social’ and ‘altruistic’ to refer to values which favour behaving cooperatively and helping others. In evolutionary biology altruism is defined as behaviour which involves a loss/cost to the individual concerned, as well as gains to others; we do not imply that here.

  4. 4.

    No event has been conclusively shown to bring a long term increase in LS. A possible candidate, amusingly, is cosmetic surgery (Frederick and Loewenstein 1999; Wengle 1986).

  5. 5.

    It is of course accepted that different LS trajectories can have the same Grand Mean and Grand Standard Deviation.

  6. 6.

    It would have made no sense to classify these individuals according to their Grand Standard Deviations as well as their Grand Means, because their Grand Standard Deviations were in all cases large, simply because of their large upward or downward shifts in the distribution over 25 years.

  7. 7.

    Ties in 5-year LS scores were broken by adding a uniformly distributed variable with a mean of zero and a tiny deviation to each individual’s score.

  8. 8.

    Each of these 5 pairs of coefficients are bound to be almost exactly the same because, in the overall analysis, variables for each year appear an approximately equal number of times as year t, t + 1, t-1 etc. There is just a small amount of asymmetry due to the beginning and end years of the 25-year period.

  9. 9.

    The difference between these two figures is at least partly due to the fact that the mean of LS (and hence the Grand Mean) is a little lower than the median (6.96 versus 6.98 on the 0–10 scale). So, in any given year, a few percentage points more panel members are above their own Grand Mean than below it. Over the entire 25-year period, the same pattern is found. The typical individual recorded a LS rating above his/her own Grand Mean for 14 years, and was at or below it for 11 years.

  10. 10.

    Mean LS ratings (0–10 scale) for different age groups are: under 20 years 7.54, 20–29 years 7.22, 30–39 years 6.98, 40–49 years 6.77, 50–59 years 6.67, 60–64 years 6.88, 65–69 years 7.04, 70–79 years 6.93, age 80 plus 7.00. The only gender difference is between age 50 and 59: men age 50–54 years 6.68, women age 50–54 years 6.68, men age 55–59 years 6.72, women age 55–59 years 6.64.

  11. 11.

    \({\text{LS}}_{{{\text{t}} + 6}} = \mathop {4.45}\limits_{ (0.12)} - \mathop {0.30}\limits_{ (0.07)} \,{\text{Disabled}}_{\text{t}} + \mathop {0.42}\limits_{ (0.01)} \,{\text{LS}}_{{{\text{t}} - 4}} - \mathop {0.06}\limits_{ (0.02)} \,{\text{Female}} - \mathop {0.02}\limits_{ (0.00)} \,{\text{Age}} + \mathop {0.03}\limits_{ (0.00)} \,{\text{Age-squared}}.\)

  12. 12.

    They all have high Grand Standard Deviations, not because of volatility, but because of large long term gains or declines in LS.

  13. 13.

    The measure here is a simple count of the number of years out of 25 that a person was unemployed.

  14. 14.

    The coefficient for being partnered is Beta = 0.05 (p < 0.001) in a parallel equation in which LS is the dependent variable and the explanatory variables are the same as in Table 4.

  15. 15.

    The various age groups recorded the following Grand Standard Deviations: age under 20 1.26, age 20–29 1.14, age 30–39 1.16, age 40–49 1.17, age 50–59 1.19, age 60–69 1.19, age 70–79 1.22, age 80 and over 1.26.

  16. 16.

    Neither of these groups of researchers regarded themselves as explicitly testing a theory of hedonism. But, in our view, they developed measures and collected data which provide tests.

  17. 17.

    This particular formulation of positivist theory is due to Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University.

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Age changes in LS

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Headey, B., Muffels, R. A Theory of Life Satisfaction Dynamics: Stability, Change and Volatility in 25-Year Life Trajectories in Germany. Soc Indic Res 140, 837–866 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-017-1785-z

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Keywords

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