Saturday, June 23, 2012

Research - Does Personality Moderate Reaction and Adaptation to Major Life Events?

This study looked at the correspondence (or lack thereof) between Big Five personality traits and responses (increased or decreased life satisfaction) to major life events in a wide population (The British Household Panel Survey conducted by ESRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change at the University of Essex, Colchester).

The study seems to show that major life events do have a strong impact on life satisfaction and these responses are not mitigated by the Big Five traits over time.

Full citation:
Yap, S.C.Y., Anusic, I., Lucas, R.E. (2012). Does Personality Moderate Reaction and Adaptation
to Major Life Events? Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey. Journal of Research in Personality, doi:

Does Personality Moderate Reaction and Adaptation to Major Life Events?

Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey

Stevie C.Y. Yap, Ivana Anusic, Richard E. Lucas

A nationally representative panel study of British households was used to examine the extent to which Big Five personality traits interact with the experience of major life events (marriage, childbirth, unemployment, and widowhood) to predict increases and decreases in life satisfaction following the event. Results show that major life events are associated with changes in life satisfaction, and some of these changes are very long lasting. Personality traits did not have consistent moderating effects on the association between stressful life events and life satisfaction over time.

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Major events play a central role in people's lives. People may work hard to achieve certain life events (like getting married) and invest great effort to avoid experiencing others (like ending a marriage in divorce). Although there are many reasons why people pursue or avoid these experiences, intuition would suggest that at least one reason concerns the effects that these experiences have on happiness and subjective well-being. It would be surprising to find out, for instance, that the things that one has worked so hard for and desired to such a great extent made no lasting difference in that person's self-assessed overall quality of life. Thus, the degree to which one's subjective well-being is affected by the experience of these life events is an important empirical concern.

Life Events and Subjective Well-being
Subjective well-being (SWB) is defined as the subjective evaluation of a person's quality of life from his or her own perspective (Diener, 1984). An important goal for research concerns identifying the factors that are associated with SWB. Somewhat surprisingly, effect sizes linking objective life circumstances to subjective reports of well-being tend to be relatively small (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). These small effects have led some to conclude that people adapt to most objective circumstances over time. Specifically, adaptation theories (e.g., Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999) suggest that one’s SWB varies around a stable, genetically determined set-point (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). These theories predict that individuals may temporarily move away from this set point in response to positive and negative life events, but will inevitably adapt back to baseline levels of SWB within a short period of time.

Initially, much of the research into the causes of SWB consisted of cross-sectional studies that focused on the correlates of individual differences in well-being (for reviews, see Diener, 1984; Wilson, 1967). However, these cross-sectional designs have known and relatively serious limitations. Therefore, in recent years, researchers have turned to more sophisticated designs for assessing the factors that may influence well-being. One such stream of research involves analyzing large, nationally representative panel studies to see whether changes in life circumstances are associated with changes in SWB (see Lucas, 2007a, for a review). These studies can often provide more information about the nature of the associations between life circumstance variables and SWB outcomes than can simpler cross-sectional designs. Past empirical research that has used this type of panel data to examine the effect of life events on SWB suggests that experiencing major positive and negative life events may have substantial effects on an individual's life satisfaction (e.g., Lucas, 2007a). However, the precise nature of these effects appears to vary across different events. For instance, research using the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) shows that individuals typically do react to major life events (like marriage, divorce, disability, childbirth, widowhood, and unemployment), but the length of time that these reactions last varies across events (Lucas, 2007a). Past research suggests that people adapt relatively quickly to marriage and childbirth, more slowly to widowhood, and that adaptation is not complete for unemployment and the onset of disability (Lucas, 2007a; Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2003; 2004; Dyrdal & Lucas, in press).

Read the whole article or download the PDF.

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