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Set point theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Set point theory predicts that wellbeing tends to fluctuate around a stable level--a level that generally remains uniform over time (for a discussion, see Fujita & Diener, 2005). After individuals experience positive events, their wellbeing might rise transiently but then will revert to this stable level or set point. Likewise, after individuals experience negative events, their wellbeing might decline momentarily, but will then regress to the previous level.

Adaptation level theory

Adaptation level theory may provide some insights into the source of this stability in well-being (Helson, 1948, 1964). According to this theory, over time, individuals form expectations of the future, called frames of reference. Events that are more favorable than such expectations evoke positive emotions, whereas events that are less favorable than such expectations evoke negative emotions.

These events, however, also shape the expectations or frames of reference. To illustrate, if individuals are assigned to a salubrious office--an office that exceeds their expectations--they will initially enjoy positive emotions. Over time, however, their frame of references changes and they expect these surroundings. Hence, after several weeks or months, the office no longer elicits positive affective states.

Nevertheless, such adaptation or habituation is not as pronounced for experiences compared to possessions. In one set of studies, conducted by Nicolao, Irwin, and Goodman (2009), participants reflected upon past purchases, including either experiences, such as holiday, or a possession, such as furniture. Next, they indicated whether they had enjoyed the purchase. Finally, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel happy as they reflect upon this past purchase.

If participants had enjoyed the purchase, experiences were more likely than possessions to increase happiness even now. If they had not enjoyed the purchase, experiences were more likely than possessions to decrease happiness even now. The effect of experiences on emotions, therefore, tends to persist longer than do the effect of possessions.

Dynamic equilibrium

Heady and Wearing (1986, 1987, 1988, 1989;; Heady, 2008) argued the stability of wellbeing, coupled with positive life satisfaction, can partly be ascribed to a dynamic equilibrium model. Specifically, the mood and satisfaction of individuals may, arguably, be governed by a psychological system that evolved to maintain self esteem. In particular, this system ensures that self esteem, and thus mood and satisfaction, remains at fairly high levels. For example, self esteem must be elevated enough to ensure that individuals feel sufficiently confident to engage in suitable behaviors. Nevertheless, self esteem should not be too high, because otherwise individuals might feel complacent, and essential resources would not be accrued.


Cummins (1998) applied the term homeostasis to characterize the regulation of mood as well as satisfaction and, hence, the stability of wellbeing. Similar to homeostasis in the regulation of bodily states such as temperature, Cummins (1998) assumed that homeostasis of subjective wellbeing comprises several features.

First, many events or factors, such as poverty, can affect subjective wellbeing. Second, as subjective wellbeing diverges from the preexisting levels, called the set point, a system of processes are evoked. These processes return wellbeing to this set point, after some delay. Thus, in general, wellbeing varies within a range, centered on the set point. Third, occasionally, some event is particularly influential and wellbeing diverges from the range in which this homeostasis is usually effective, called homoestatic defeat. In these instances, wellbeing becomes more dependent on the magnitude of some threat or opportunity and not the homeostatic system.

Cummins (2000, 2003 , 2010) identified several mechanisms that underpin homeostasis. Two of these mechanisms are tangible resources: wealth and relationships. To illustrate, if individuals experience negative events, compromising their immediate wellbeing, they can utilize some of their wealth to purchase resources that can be utilized to defend these problems. Similarly, they can utilize the support and intimacy of other people in their life, especially partners and children.

The other mechanisms are cognitive processes rather than tangible resources. For example, individuals can reconceptualize their goals to accommodate negative events. If debilitated by age or disease, they can derive meaning from other pursuits. They can trivialize the importance of adversities (for other possible mechanisms, see opponent process theory).

According to Davern, Cummins, and Stokes (2007), the homeostatic system regulates core affect or mood rather than specific emotions. Core affect was defined by Russel (2003) as a neurophysiological state that is experienced as a feeling or mood. Core affect differs from emotions: core affect, unlike an emotion, is never connected to any specific object or event. Instead, core affect is more abstract, representing a more general feeling. In particular, according to Davern, Cummins, and Stokes (2007), this core affect--called homeostatically protected mood--combines happiness, contentment, and excitement.


Initial substantiation

To some extent, set point theory emanated from seminal research, conducted by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978). This study compared the happiness of 22 people who had won lotteries with 29 people who had experienced paralysis as a consequence of accidents. After some delay, the happiness of these individuals did not differ significantly from the happiness of a control group of participants. The implication of this study is that, after a pivotal event, the happiness of individuals changes temporarily but then returns to the previous level.

Set point theory primarily evolved to explain three main observations (for a summary, see Cummins, 2010). First, subjective wellbeing, as gauged by explicit measures, seems to be stable over time. Second, in general, people tend to be more satisfied than dissatisfied. Third, these measures of subjective well-being seem to conform to a normal distribution, consistent with genetic theories.


To explain this stability of wellbeing over time, proponent of set point theory maintain that affective states are primarily dependent upon enduring dispositions (see Huppert, 2005). Personality traits, for example, are assumed to determine the emotional experiences and responses of individuals. A meta-analysis of 148 studies, conducted by DeNeve and Cooper (1998), showed that neuroticism is inversely related to subjective wellbeing--which represents a combination of positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction (see Diener, 2000)& the correlation was -.22. Furthermore, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion were positively related to subjective wellbeing, generating correlations of .21, .17, and .17 respectively. Overall, Steel, Schmidt, and Schulz (2008) showed that 39% to 63% of the variance in subjective wellbeing can be ascribed to personality.


According to set point theory, wealth should not affect the set point. Nevertheless, wealth does curb the incidence of negative events. If individuals are very deprived, they might be more likely to experience acute negative events-such as treatable illness in which they cannot afford the remedy. These events might be too severe to be accommodated effectively by the homeostatic system. Thus, at very deprived levels, negative affect might be prevalent.

Nevertheless, provided that levels of wealth are sufficient, further increases are unlikely to be beneficial to subjective wellbeing. Specifically, if levels of wealth are sufficient, individuals are not as likely to experience negative events that cannot be accommodated effectively by the homeostatic system. Thus, wellbeing should tend to approach the set point. Consistent with this premise, provided that income is sufficient, perhaps in the top 25% of the population, further increases in wage are not related to subjective wellbeing (Cummins, Woerner, Gibson, Weinberg, Collard, & Chester, 2009).

Furthermore, if individuals are deprived, a partner is especially likely to enhance subjective wellbeing. If individuals are wealthy, a partner is not as likely to enhance wellbeing (for a summary, see Cummins, 2010). Presumably, if wealthy, the homeostatic system is already potent enough to maintain wellbeing within the set point range: The support of partners, therefore, is not as essential.

Complications to set point theory

Cause and effect

Opponents of set point theory highlight several complications of these results. First, subjective wellbeing might affect personality rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, in contrast to this position, McNiel and Fleeson (2006) showed that behaviors that affect the personality of individuals influence their emotional state. These findings indicate that personality can determine wellbeing rather than vice versa.

Changing dispositions

Second, personality, and thus subjective wellbeing, can change systematically over time. Indeed, if individuals enjoy their job, they show increasingly higher levels of extraversion, and lower levels of neuroticism, over time (Scollon & Diener, 2006). These results, however, diverge from the discovery that genetics explains between 25% and 55% of the variance in the subjective wellbeing of individuals as well as 50% of the variance in personality (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996;; Roysamb, Tambs, Reichborn,-Kjennerud, Neale, & Harris, 2003;; Weiss, Bates, & Luciano, 2008).

Significant life events

Third, significant life events seem to elevate or lower the set point. A study conducted by Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2004), for example, monitored the life satisfaction of over 20 000 individuals for 15 years. This analysis showed that unemployment elicited a decline in life satisfaction, which gradually returned to more elevated levels over time. Nevertheless, the levels of life satisfaction after unemployment remained lower than were the levels before unemployment (for comparable findings, see Hammen, 2005). Furthermore, enduring improvements of wellbeing have been uncovered six months after cosmetic surgery (e.g., Cole, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, & Hobby, 1994).

Positive events versus negative events

According to some research, negative events are more likely than positive events to provoke enduring changes in mood or life satisfaction (for a review, see Diener et al. 2009). That is, prolonged unemployment (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2004), an enduring disability (Lucas 2007), and the collapse of marriages (Lucas 2005) can compromise wellbeing over an extensive period of time. Yet, positive events, such as increases in income, do not seem to promote wellbeing as sustainably (e.g., Lykken & Tellegen, 1996).

Malleable determinants of wellbeing

Fourth, a variety of factors, some of which are unrelated to personality but can be changed, are associated with wellbeing. Diener and Biswas-Diener (2002), for example, showed that mean reports of subjective wellbeing are elevated in wealthy, relative to deprived, nations. Within nations, however, income and subjective wellbeing are only modestly correlated, especially in wealthier nations (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002). Nevertheless, subjective wellbeing is lower in some deprived communities, such as homeless individuals (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2006).

Actually, Sacks, Stevenson, and Wolfers (2012) uncovered results that contradict two common propositions about the relationship between income and wellbeing. The first proposition is that, after individuals are sufficiently wealthy, additional income is no longer related to wellbeing. The second proposition is that wellbeing depends only on the level of income compared to peers and not the absolute level of income. Sacks, Stevenson, and Wolfers (2012), however, showed that increases in absolute income continue to enhance wellbeing even in people who are already very wealthy. Their study is unique, integrating dozens of datasets over many years and countries and millions of people. Therefore, this study overcomes the limited data that were analyzed in previous research.

This study, for example, demonstrated that average life satisfaction in a nation is positively and linearly associated with GDP. In this study, to measure life satisfaction, participants were asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom, representing the worst possible life for them, to ten at the top, representing the best possible life for them. They were then asked to indicate on which step of the ladder they feel they are standing at this time. Even amongst the richest nations, wellbeing was positively related to GDP.

Similarly, public policies and initiatives, at regional, national, and state levels, can also affect subjective wellbeing. For example, nationwide expenditure on medical care, child benefits, unemployment, and the aged is positively related to happiness (Veenhoven, 2000). Perhaps as a consequence, in advanced nations, life satisfaction is usually elevated when a socialist, labor, or egalitarian rather than conservative party is dominant in government (Pacek & Radcliff, 2008;; Radcliff, 2001). Conservative parties often maintain or amplify inequalities in income, and these disparities are inversely related to happiness (Alesina, Di Tella, & MacCulloch, 2004).

In addition to egalitarian policies, other forms of expenditure are also associated with subjective wellbeing. Wassamer, Lascher, and Kroll (2009), for example, discovered the percentage of state or local expenditure on public safety, comprising fire, police, corrections, and other emergency services, was positively related to happiness in these regions. This relationship persisted after many factors, such as marital status, income, ideologies, and other expenses were controlled.

Variants of set point theory

The sustainable happiness model

The sustainable happiness model represents an extension and clarification of set point theory. According to set point theory, the level of happiness that individuals experience can increase or decrease temporarily, as a consequences of life events and changes. Nevertheless, after some delay, happiness tends to return to preexisting levels.

In contrast, according to the sustainable happiness model (e.g., Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005), lasting changes to happiness are possible, but only in specific circumstances. In particular, changes in life circumstances, especially possessions, do not translate into lasting increases in happiness. That is, when individuals move to another house, purchase a car, or increase their wage, changes in happiness do not persist. Instead, individuals rapidly habituate to these changes. These changes do not seem as apparent or salient over time.

However, changes in the activities of individuals can translate into more enduring, if not unbounded, increases in happiness. That is, these activities usually enable sufficient variation to evoke a fresh stream of positive experiences. Specifically, from the perspective of self determination theory, activities that fulfill the inherent needs of individuals--autonomy, competence, and relatedness--tend to elicit an endless sequence of positive emotions.

To some extent, this theory was corroborated by a study, reported by Sheldon, Abad, Ferguson, Gunz, Houser-Marko, Nichols, and Lyubomirsky (2010). In this study, participants were encouraged to form one of four categories of goals. Specifically, they were instructed to form goals that are intended to:

Next, four times, across the course of six months, the emotional state and life satisfaction of participants was assessed. Furthermore, the extent to which people felt they devoted effort to these goals as well as progressed on these pursuits was also measured.

If individuals formed goals that enhance autonomy, competence, or relationships--rather than life circumstances--they were more likely to experience positive emotions and satisfaction with life. Nevertheless, if individuals did not feel they had progressed, the benefits of these goals did not enhance, and even compromised, wellbeing. Furthermore, wellbeing at one time was associated with progress over the previous two months.

Taken together, these findings verify the sustainable happiness model. In particular, goals did not enhance wellbeing unless progress had been forged. Presumably, this progress translates into a variety of rewarding experiences, necessary to sustainable improvements in happiness. Nevertheless, only progress on goals that fulfilled core needs--autonomy, competence, or relationships--rather than material changes enhanced wellbeing.

The hedonic adaptation prevention model

The hedonic adaptation prevention model, proposed by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2012), specifies some of the conditions that could prolong the wellbeing that changes can evoke. According to this model, increases in wellbeing are transient for two reasons. First, the salience of positive events diminishes over time. That is, individuals become habituated to these positive events, such as a new job. After a delay, they become less inclined to reflect upon these positive events. Second, after a positive event, individuals tend to increase their aspirations. If they lose 5 kg, for example, they often set the goal to lose another 5 kg and so forth.

Nevertheless, various characteristics of the events, or behaviors in the individuals, can moderate both habituation and rising aspirations. First, if individuals feel grateful for these changes--that is, if they sustain their appreciation--they become less inclined to raise their aspirations. Second, if the positive event is associated with variety, habituation may not be as likely. In this context, variety refers to diverse, surprising, and unexpected consequences of this event as well as an assortment of thoughts about this episode.

To assess this model, participants were instructed to write about a positive change in their life, such as questions about their wellbeing, the extent to which they contemplate the positive event, the variety of consequences this event evoked, they degree to which they appreciate or savor this event, and the extent to which they aspire to elevate the consequences of this event.

Many of the predictions were supported. If participants did not often contemplate the event or appreciate the consequences of this event, wellbeing declined over time. Yet, appreciation diminished the effect of increasing aspirations on wellbeing. Variety increased the experience of positive emotions but did not, contrary to hypotheses, moderate the association between contemplation of the events and positive emotions.

Abstinence diminishes hedonic adaptation

Refraining from some pleasurable action, like eating chocolate, can sustain the positive emotions this act can evoke. That is, abstinence can override hedonic adaptation, as shown by Quoidbach and Dunn (2013).

Specifically, in their study, participants ate a piece of chocolate. Then, over the next week, some of these individuals were instructed to abstain from chocolate. Other individuals were instructed to eat considerable chocolate. Finally, some individuals did not receive any instructions on whether to eat chocolate during the week. A week after eating the first chocolate, participants were granted another piece of chocolate to eat. They rated their emotions after eating this chocolate as well as the degree to which they savoured this item. If participants had been instructed to refrain from chocolate for a week, they subsequently enjoyed this item more. That is, relative to participants in the other conditions, the chocolate was more likely to likely to evoke positive emotions and be savoured by these people.

The orchid effect

The extent to which genes might affect mental or physical wellbeing may depend on the environment. Specifically, according to South and Krueger (2013), in some circumstances, genes are more likely to affect wellbeing in unusual environments--that is, in especially favorable or especially unfavorable conditions. This tendency is called the orchid effect.

For example, South and Krueger (2013) undertook a twin study to examine the extent to which physical health can be ascribed to genetic variation. In addition, marital satisfaction, intended to gauge whether the conditions were favorable or unfavorable, was measured. When marital satisfaction was especially favorable or especially unfavorable, genes were especially likely to explain variation in physical health, consistent with the orchid effect.

The source of this orchid effect is not entirely certain. Potentially, some genes increase the degree to which the characteristics of people are sensitive to environmental conditions. That is, the attributes of some people are especially plastic or malleable and, therefore, will be influenced by features of the environment. Unfavorable conditions could provoke unfavorable changes, and favorable conditions could provoke favorable changes, in these individuals, explaining the orchid effect.


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