Limitations of the Dispositional Perspective

When one considers that most people tend to be generally happy with their lives,22 the notion of a more or less automatic return to a positive affective set point may not sound bad. However, there may be significant limitations to the strong nature view of SWB and its implications for mental health intervention (or nonintervention) with cancer survivors. In particular, although traits clearly account for a substantial portion of the variation in SWB, they do not explain all of the variance, and mere documentation of trait-SWB relations does not illuminate the mechanisms or processes through which traits may be causally linked to SWB.23 Indeed, other evidence suggests that SWB is multiply determined, that non-trait person and environment factors play important roles in affective regulation, and that some people experience quite substantial and long-term changes in SWB over time (see Lent4 for a review). Thus, there is no guarantee that people will effortlessly or invariably return to a satisfying affective set point if left to their own devices. Moreover, relatively brief psychosocial interventions have been shown to promote SWB, both at posttest and 6-18 months later, albeit in nonclinical adult samples.24-26 Such findings question Lykken and Tellegen's19 conclusion that happiness cannot be modified.

Although there is need for more research on the long-term effects of the cancer experience on SWB per se, available evidence suggests that many individuals face continued emotional challenges long after their cancer was detected and treated1 (Wolff, this volume). And, for some individuals, the cancer experience may be akin to other life traumas (e.g., involving loss of valued life roles or resources) that have the potential to provoke long-term change in SWB—as it were, to recalibrate affective set point in a negative direction. On the other hand, it is somewhat reassuring to note that many cancer survivors compare favorably to healthy controls or population norms on measures of well-being several years after being diagnosed and treated.27-29 Yet, even if naturally occurring psychobiological processes help to restore emotional equilibrium after major upheavals, it is still possible that such processes can be hastened and augmented by well-designed interventions, thereby reducing periods of acute emotional distress and mitigating unnecessary suffering.

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