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The Set-point Theory of Happiness


Explanations > Emotions > Happiness > The Set-point Theory of Happiness

Description | Discussion | So what



There is a 'Set Point' theory of happiness and well-being that assumes we each have a fixed 'average' level of happiness around which our day-to-day and moment-to-moment happiness varies.

This is expressed in the idea of temperament, mood and emotion, where our natural temperament is stable, with slowly moving moods and momentary changes in experienced emotions.


Set Point theory is supported by research such as Brickman et al. (1978), where it was shown that people who win the lottery, after the initial euphoria has died down, are no happier than people with spinal cord injuries. It has also been supported and explained using the Big Five model (Costa and McCrea, 1980) where extraversion and neuroticism have been linked to subjective well-being by the notion that people who score higher on these scales will be more positive (extraversion) or less positive (neuroticism) about things.

A question that this theory brings up is whether it is possible to get any happier, or whether we are just stuck with the happiness we have been dealt and that some people will always be more naturally cheerful than others. It seems a rather fatalistic position to take.

Several governments have been looking at Subjective Well-Being as a measure of success, with the idea that good laws and policies will increase SWB. But if happiness is fixed at a set point, then this will not be the case. Perhaps it would be better just to test perception of how well-run the country is, although this may be too close to the mark for some politicians. The same question applies for the many therapists and others who make a living out of helping others towards a happier life.

Genetic studies indicate that there is significant degree of inheritance in many personality factors, as much as 50% or so (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996). This implies that the Set Point may not make up all of a person's happiness but only a part of it. If our general temperament can be shifted by environmental and cognitive factors then maybe governments and therapists do have a chance after all.

There have also been significant challenges to Set Point theory, such as Easterlin (2005), who noted that life's problems can seriously scar individuals, seemingly permanently depressing their SWB.

Set Point theory is valid in other areas, not just happiness. This includes body weight, where it seems we each have a natural weight, including the level of fat we would normally carry. As with happiness, this provides a concerning challenge to the industry that offers ways to diet and lose weight.

Set Point theory is also known as or related to the hedonic treadmill, hedonic adaptation, adaptation level (AL) theory, personality theory, dynamic equilibrium theory, multiple discrepancies theory and homeostatic theory.

So what?

When seeking to increase overall happiness of yourself and others, do not expect to make big changes. It is possible that people can become depressed by circumstances, apparently depressing their normal SWB level. A good approach if this is true is to seek and remove the causes of depression.

See also

Temperament, Mood and Emotion, Subjective Well-Being, Adaptation


Brickman, P.D. and Campbell, D.T. (1971) ‘Hedonic relativism and planning the good society’ in M.H. Appley ed. Adaptation Level Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Brickman, P., Coates, D. and Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 8 , 917-927.

Costa, P.T. and McCrae, R.R. (1980) Influences of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 668-78

Easterlin, R.A. (2005). ‘Building a better theory of well-being’ in L. Bruni and P. Porta eds. Economics and Happiness: Framing the Analysis. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lykken, D. and Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186-89.


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