Not Genes, but Preferences, Choices and Constraints Matter for Understanding Non-Transient Changes in Subjective Well-Being
Recent studies using comparative panel data analyzing what matters for subjective well-being (SWB) show that preferences and choices relating to life goals and values, partner’s personality, hours of work and care, social participation and healthy lifestyle have substantial long-term effects on life satisfaction. These results have implications for a widely accepted theory of SWB, the set-point theory. This theory holds that adult SWB is stable in the medium and long term, although temporary fluctuations occur due to life events like marriage, divorce or job loss. Set-point theory has come under increasing criticism, primarily due to evidence that significant parts of the population record substantial and apparently permanent changes in life. The challenge is now to develop a new theory which can account for medium and long term change. We need a better understanding of the way in which preferences, choices and constraints interact and affect changes in SWB. One of the challenging avenues for future research renders Sen’s capability framework which we applied by viewing the effects of stocks (economic, social and cultural capital), flows (life decisions) and life events on subjective and objective wellbeing. Such an avenue might enrich our understanding of the social sources of ‘well-being’ and the ‘inequality’ in happiness outcomes within and across modern societies.
Ruud J. Muffels is Full Professor of Socio-Economics (Labour Market and Social Security) at the Department of Social Sciences of Tilburg University, The Netherlands.