Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 37–69 | Cite as

Maintaining Life Satisfaction: The Role of Positive Cognitive Bias

  • Robert A. Cummins
  • Helen Nistico


Recent research into population standards of life satisfaction has revealed a remarkable level of uniformity, with the mean values for Western populations clustering at around three-quarters of the measurement scale maximum. While this seems to suggest the presence of a homeostatic mechanism for life satisfaction, the character of such a hypothetical device is uncertain. This paper proposes that well-being homeostasis is controlled by positive cognitive biases pertaining to the self. Most particular in this regard are the positive biases in relation to self-esteem, control and optimism. Past controversies in relation to this proposition are reviewed and resolved in favour of the proposed mechanism. The empirical data to support this hypothesis are discussed in the context of perceived well-being as an adaptive human attribute.

life satisfaction homeostasis illusions positive cognitive bias self-esteem control optimism 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abbey, A. and F.M. Andrews: 1985, ‘Modeling the psychological determinants of life quality', Social Indicators Research 16, pp. 1–34.Google Scholar
  2. Abramson, L.Y. and L.B. Alloy: 1981, ‘Depression, nondepression, and cognitive illusions: Reply to Schwartz', Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 110, pp. 436–447.Google Scholar
  3. Abramson, L.Y., M.E.P. Seligman and J.D. Teasdale: 1978, ‘Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation', Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1, pp. 49–74.Google Scholar
  4. Ackerman, R. and R.J. DeRubeis: 1991, ‘Is depressive realism real?', Clinical Psychological Review 11, pp. 564–584.Google Scholar
  5. Alloy, L.B. and L.Y. Abramson: 1979, ‘Judgment of contingency in depressed and non-depressed students: Sadder but wiser?', Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 108, pp. 441–485.Google Scholar
  6. Alloy, L.B. and A.H. Athrens: 1987, ‘Depression and pessimism for the future: Biased use of statistically relevant information in predictions for self versus others', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52, pp. 366–378.Google Scholar
  7. Allport, G.W.: 1943, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT).Google Scholar
  8. Argyle, M. and L. Lu: 1990, ‘The happiness of extraverts', Personality and Individual Differences 11, pp. 1011–1017.Google Scholar
  9. Aspinwall, L.G. and S.E. Taylor: 1993, ‘Effects of social comparison direction, threat, self-evaluation, and expected success', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, pp. 708–722.Google Scholar
  10. Baumeister, R.F.: 1989, ‘The optimal margin of illusion', Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 8, pp. p176–189.Google Scholar
  11. Beck, A.T.: 1967, Depression (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia).Google Scholar
  12. Benassi, V.A. and H.I.M. Mahler: 1985, ‘Contingency judgements by depressed college students: Sadder but not always wiser', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49, pp. 1323–1329.Google Scholar
  13. Boschen, K.A.: 1996, ‘Correlates of life satisfaction, residential satisfaction, and locus of control among adults with spinal cord injuries', Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin 39, pp. 230–243.Google Scholar
  14. Bowins, B. and G. Shugar: 1998, ‘Delusions and self-esteem', Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 43, pp. 154–158.Google Scholar
  15. Brown, J.D.: 1986, ‘Evaluations of self and others: Self enhancement biases in social judgments', Social Cognition 4, pp. 353–376.Google Scholar
  16. Calman, K.C.: 1984, ‘Quality of life in cancer patients – an hypothesis', Journal of Medical Ethics 10, pp. 124–127.Google Scholar
  17. Campbell, A.: 1981, The Sense of Well-Being in America (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York).Google Scholar
  18. Chapman, L.J. and J.P. Chapman: 1969, ‘Illusory correlation as an obstacle to the use of valid psychodiagnostic steps', Journal of Abnormal Psychology 74, pp. 271–280.Google Scholar
  19. Christensen, K.A., M.A. Parris Stephens and A.L. Townsend: 1998, ‘Mastery in women's multiple roles and well-being: Adult daughters providing care to impaired parents', Health Psychology 17, pp. 163–171.Google Scholar
  20. Colvin, C.R. and J. Block: 1994, ‘Do positive illusions foster mental health? An examination of the Taylor and Brown formulation', Psychological Bulletin 116, pp. 3–20.Google Scholar
  21. Cummins, R.A.: 1995, ‘On the trail of the gold standard for subjective well-being', Social Indicators Research 35, pp. 179–200.Google Scholar
  22. Cummins, R.A.: 1997a, The Comprehensive Quality of Life Scale – Adult (ComQol-A5). (5th edition) (School of Psychology, Deakin University, Melbourne).Google Scholar
  23. Cummins, R.A.: 1997b, ‘The domains of life satisfaction: An attempt to order chaos', Social Indicators Research 38, pp. 303–332.Google Scholar
  24. Cummins, R.A.: 1998, ‘The second approximation to an international standard for life satisfaction', Social Indicators Research 35, pp. 179–200.Google Scholar
  25. Cummins, R.A.: 2002a, ‘Normative life satisfaction: Measurement issues and a homeostatic model', Social Indicators Research (in press).Google Scholar
  26. Cummins, R.A.: 2002b, Unreported data.Google Scholar
  27. Cummins, R.A.: 2002c, ‘Proxy responding and subjective well-being: A review, International Review of Research in Mental Retardation 25, pp. 183–207.Google Scholar
  28. Decker, S.D. and R. Schulz: 1985, ‘Correlates of life satisfaction and depression in middle-aged and elderly spinal cord-injured persons', American Journal of Occupational Therapy 39, pp. 740–745.Google Scholar
  29. Dember, W.N. and J. Brooks: 1989, ‘A new instrument for measuring optimism and pessimism: Test-retest reliability and relations with happiness and religious commitment', Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 27, pp. 365–366.Google Scholar
  30. Diener, E. and M. Diener: 1995(a), ‘Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68, pp. 653–663.Google Scholar
  31. Diener, E. and C. Diener: 1995(b), ‘Factors predicting the subjective well-being of nations', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, pp. 851–864.Google Scholar
  32. Dodge, R. and E. Kahn: 1931, The Craving for Superiority (Yale University Press, New Haven).Google Scholar
  33. Edgerton, R.B.: 1990, ‘Quality of life from a longitudinal research perspective', in R.L. Schalock (ed.), Quality of Life: Perspectives and Issues (American Association on Mental Retardation), pp. 149–160.Google Scholar
  34. Erikson, E.H.: 1950, Childhood and Society (en2nd edition) (Norton, New York).Google Scholar
  35. Feist, G.J., T.E. Bodner, J.F. Jacobs, M. Miles and V. Tan: 1995, ‘Integrating top-down and bottom-up structural models of subjective well-being: A longitudinal investigation', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68, pp. 8–150.Google Scholar
  36. Festinger, L.: 1954, ‘A theory of social comparison process', Human Relations 7, pp. 117–140.Google Scholar
  37. Fuhrer, M.J., D.H. Rintala, K.A. Hart, R. Clearman and M.E. Young: 1992, ‘Relationship of life satisfaction to impairment, disability, and handicap among persons with spinal cord injury living in the community', Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 73, pp. 552–557.Google Scholar
  38. George, L.K.: 1979, ‘The happiness syndrome: Methodological and substantive issues in the study of social-psychological well-being in adulthood', The Gerontologist 19, pp. 210–216.Google Scholar
  39. Gigerenzer, G.: 1996, ‘On narrow norms and vague heuristics: A reply to Kahneman and Tversky (1996)', Psychological Review 103, pp. 592–596.Google Scholar
  40. Gilovich, T., B. Vallone and A. Tversky: 1985, ‘The hot hand in basketball: On the misconception of random sequences', Cognitive Psychology 17, pp. p295–314.Google Scholar
  41. Goldings, H.J.: 1954, ‘On the avowal and projection of happiness', Journal of Personality 23, pp. 30–47.Google Scholar
  42. Golin S., F. Terrell, J. Weitz and P.L. Drost: 1979, ‘The illusion of control among depressed patients', Journal of Abnormal Psychology 88, pp. 454–457.Google Scholar
  43. Haaga, D.A.F. and B.L. Stewart: 1992, ‘Self-efficacy for recovery from a lapse after smoking cessation', Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 60, pp. 24–28.Google Scholar
  44. Harvey, J.H., R.M. Arkin, J.M. Gleason and S. Johnston: 1974, ‘Effect of expected and observed outcome of an action on the differential causal attributions of actor and observer', Journal of Personality 42, pp. 62–77.Google Scholar
  45. Headey, B. and A. Wearing: 1992. ‘Understanding happiness: A theory of subjective well-being'. Longman Cheshire: Melbourne.Google Scholar
  46. Headey, B., E. Holmstrom and A. Wearing: 1984, ‘The impact of life events and changes in domain satisfaction on well-being', Social Indicators Research 15, pp. 203–227.Google Scholar
  47. Helgeson, V.S.: 1992, ‘Moderators of the relation between perceived control and adjustment to chronic illness', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63, pp. 656–666.Google Scholar
  48. Helson, H.: 1964, Adaptation-Level Theory (Harper and Row, New York).Google Scholar
  49. Heylighen, F. and J. Bernheim: 2000, ‘Global progress I: Empirical evidence for ongoing increase in quality-of-life', Journal of Happiness Studies 1, 3 pp. 323–349.Google Scholar
  50. Ireys, H.T., L.A. Werthamer-Larsson and K.B. Kolodner: 1994, ‘Self-esteem of young adults with chronic health conditions: Appraising the effects of perceived impact', Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics 6, pp. 409–415.Google Scholar
  51. Janoff-Bulman, R.: 1989, ‘Assumptive worlds and the stress of traumatic events: Applications of the schema construct', Social Cognition 7, pp. 113–136.Google Scholar
  52. Jopling, D.A.: 1996, “Take away the life-lie...”: Positive illusions and creative selfdeception', Philosophical Psychology 9, pp. 525–544.Google Scholar
  53. Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky: 1996, ‘On the reality of cognitive illusions', Psychological Review 103, pp. 582–591.Google Scholar
  54. King, L.A., J.H. Richards and E. Stemmerich: 1998, ‘Daily goals, life goals, and worst fears: Means, ends, and subjective well-being', Journal of Personality 66, pp. 713–744.Google Scholar
  55. Krueger, J.: 1998, ‘Enhancement bias in descriptions of self and others', Personality and Social Psychology 24, pp. 505–516.Google Scholar
  56. Kwan, V.S.Y., M.H. Bond and T.M. Singelis: 1997. Pancultural explanations for life satisfaction: Adding relationship harmony to self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73, pp. 1038–1051.Google Scholar
  57. Langer, E.J.: 1975, ‘The illusion of control', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, pp. 311–328.Google Scholar
  58. Larson, R.: 1989. ‘Is feeling “in control” related to happiness in daily life?’ Psychological Reports 64, pp. 775–784.Google Scholar
  59. Lewinsohn, P.M., W. Mischel, W. Chaplin and R. Barton: 1980, ‘Social competence and depression: The role of illusory self perceptions', Journal of Abnormal Psychology 89, pp. 203–212.Google Scholar
  60. Lewinsohn, P.M., J.L. Steinmetz, D.W. Larson and J. Franklin: 1981, ‘Depressionrelated cognitions: Antecedent or consequence?', Journal of Abnormal Psychology 90, pp. 213–219.Google Scholar
  61. Lewinsohn, P.M., J.E. Redner and J.R. Seeley: 1991, ‘The relationship between life satisfaction and psychosocial variables: Newperspectives', in F. Strack, M. Argyle and N. Schwarz (eds.), Subjective Well-being: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Pergamon Press, Oxford), pp. 141–169.Google Scholar
  62. Locke, E.A., N. Cartledge and C.S. Knerr: 1970, ‘Studies of the relationship between satisfaction, goal-setting, and performance', Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance 5, pp. 135–158.Google Scholar
  63. Lucas, R.E., E. Diener and E. Suh: 1996, ‘Discriminant validity of well-being measures', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, pp. 616–628.Google Scholar
  64. Markus, H. and P. Nurius: 1986, ‘Possible selves', American Psychologist 41, pp. 954–969.Google Scholar
  65. Maslow, A.H.: 1950, ‘Self-actualizing people: A study of psychological health', Personality, Symposium No. 1, pp. 11–34.Google Scholar
  66. McCauley, C. and B.A. Bremer: 1991, ‘Subjective quality of life measures for evaluating medical intervention', Evaluation and the Health Professions 14, pp. 371–387.Google Scholar
  67. McFarlin, D.B., R.F. Baumeister and J. Blascovich: 1985, ‘On knowing when to quit: Task failure, self-esteem, advice, and nonproductive persistence', Journal of Personality 52, pp. 38–155.Google Scholar
  68. Mellor, D., R.A. Cummins and C. Loquet: 1999, ‘The gold standard for life satisfaction: Confirmation and elaboration using an imaginary scale and qualitative interview', International Journal of Social Research Methodology Theory and Practice 2, pp. 263–278.Google Scholar
  69. Michalos, A.C.: 1985, ‘Multiple discrepancies theory (MDT)', Social Indicators Research 16, pp. 347–413.Google Scholar
  70. Michalos, A.C.: 1986, ‘An application of Multiple Discrepancies Theory (MDT) to seniors', Social Indicators Research, 18, 349–373.Google Scholar
  71. Mischel, W., E.B. Ebbesen and A.R. Zeiss: 1973, ‘Selective attention to the self: Situational and dispositional determinants', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27, pp. 129–142.Google Scholar
  72. Mischel, W., E.B. Ebbesen and A.R. Zeiss: 1976, ‘Determinants of selective memory about the self', Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 44, pp. 92–103.Google Scholar
  73. Moreland, R.L. and P.D. Sweeney: 1984, ‘Self-expectancies and reactions to evaluations of personal performance', Journal of Personality 52, pp. 156–176.Google Scholar
  74. Morris, P.L.P. and B. Jones: 1989, ‘Life satisfaction across treatment methods for patients with end-stage renal failure', The Medical Journal of Australia 150, pp. 428–432.Google Scholar
  75. Neugarten, B.L., R.J. Havighurst and S.S. Tobin: 1961, ‘The measurement of life satisfaction', Journal of Gerontology 16, pp. 134–143.Google Scholar
  76. Nieves, C.C., R.A. Charter and M.J. Aspinall: 1991, ‘Relationship between effective coping and perceived quality of life in spinal cord injured patients', Rehabilitation Nursing 16, pp. 129–132.Google Scholar
  77. Palmore, E. and C. Luikart: 1972, ‘Health and social factors related to life satisfaction', Journal of Health and Social Behavior 13, pp. 68–80.Google Scholar
  78. Parmenter, T.R.: 1988. The development of a quality of life model as an outcome measure of rehabilitation programs for people with development disabilities. Paper, Ninth Annual Conference of the Young Adult Institute, New York, April.Google Scholar
  79. Raphael, D., E. Rukholm, I. Brown, P. Hill-Bailey and E. Donato: 1996, ‘The quality of life profile – adolescent version: Background, description, and initial validation', Journal of Adolescent Health 19, pp. 366–375.Google Scholar
  80. Runciman, W.G.: 1961, ‘Problems of research on relative deprivation', European Journal of Sociology 2, pp. 315–323.Google Scholar
  81. Schulz, R. and S. Decker: 1985, ‘Long-term adjustment to physical disability: The role of social support, perceived control, and self-blame', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48, pp. 1162–1172.Google Scholar
  82. Silver, R.L. and C.B. Wortman: 1980, ‘Coping with undesirable life events', in J. Garber and M.E.P. Seligman (eds.), Human Helplessness: Theory and Application (Academic Press, New York).Google Scholar
  83. Slovic, P., G. Fischhoff and S. Lichtenstein: 1982, ‘Facts versus fears: Understanding perceived risk', in D. Kahneman, P. Slovic and A. Tversky (eds.), Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England), pp. 463–489.Google Scholar
  84. Stones, M.J. and A. Kozma: 1980, ‘Issues relating to the usage and conceptualization of mental health constructs-employed by gerontologists', International Journal of Aging and Human Development 11, pp. 269–281.Google Scholar
  85. Tabachnik, N., J. Crocker and L.B. Alloy: 1983, ‘Depression, social comparison,and the false-consensus effect', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45, pp. 688–699.Google Scholar
  86. Taylor, S.E.: 1983, ‘Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation', American Psychologist 38, pp. 1161–1173.Google Scholar
  87. Taylor, S.E.: 1989, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (Basic Books: New York).Google Scholar
  88. Taylor, S.E. and J.D. Brown: 1988, ‘Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health', Psychological Bulletin 103, pp. 193–210.Google Scholar
  89. Taylor, S.E. and J.D. Brown: 1994, ‘Positive illusions and well-being revisited: Separating fact from fiction', Psychological Bulletin 116, pp. 21–27.Google Scholar
  90. Tesser, A. and J. Campbell: 1983, ‘Self-definition and self-evaluation maintenance', in J. Suls and A. Greenwald (eds.), Social Psychological Perspectives on the Self. (Vol. 2) (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ), pp. 1–31.Google Scholar
  91. Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman: 1974, ‘Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases', Science 185, pp. 1124–1131.Google Scholar
  92. Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman: 1983, ‘Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgement', Psychological Review 91, pp. 293–315.Google Scholar
  93. Van Nieuwenhuizen, C., A.H. Schene, W.A. Boevink and J. Wolf: 1997, ‘Measuring the Quality of Life of clients with severe mental illness: A review of instruments', Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 20, pp. 33–41.Google Scholar
  94. Veenhoven, R.: 1984, Databook of Happiness (Reidel, Dordrecht).Google Scholar
  95. Veenhoven, R.: 1996, ‘Developments in satisfaction-research', Social Indicators Research 37, pp. 1–46.Google Scholar
  96. Veenhoven, R.: 1997, Progres dans la comprehension du bonheur, Revue Quebecoise de Psychologie, 18, pp. 29–74. English version ‘Advances in understanding happiness', available at: Google Scholar
  97. Veenhoven, R.: 1999, ‘Quality of life in individualistic society', Social Indicatores research, 48, 157–187.Google Scholar
  98. Veenhoven, R.: 2001, Personal communication.Google Scholar
  99. Weinstein, N.D.: 1980, ‘Unrealistic optimism about future life events', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39, pp. 806–820.Google Scholar
  100. Weinstein, N.D.: 1989, ‘Optimistic biases about personal risks', Science 246, pp. 1232–1233.Google Scholar
  101. Wood, J.V., S.E. Taylor and R.R. Lichtman: 1985, ‘Social comparison in adjustment to breast cancer', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49, pp. 1169–1183.Google Scholar
  102. Wood, J.V., M. Giordano-Beech, K.L. Taylor, J.L. Michela and V. Gaus: 1994, ‘Strategies of social comparison among people with low self-esteem: Self-protection and self-enhancement', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67, pp. 713–731.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert A. Cummins
    • 1
  • Helen Nistico
  1. 1.School of Psychology Deakin UniversityVictoriaAustralia

Personalised recommendations