The Dispositional Perspective On Emotional Wellbeing

It has been found that people tend to display fairly stable levels of SWB over time, especially when their life circumstances remain stable. For instance, Headey and Wearing15 reported that life satisfaction and the experience of positive and negative affect each showed moderate levels of stability over 2- to 6-year periods. However, these three aspects of SWB were not set in stone: some individuals showed considerable change in them over time, and the occurrence of significant life events was found to explain unique variance in SWB beyond personality factors. Headey and Wearing offered a "dynamic equilibrium" hypothesis suggesting that situationally induced changes in SWB are likely to be temporary because stable (presumably genetically-based) person characteristics tend to return people to their baseline levels of affective experience over time. Consistent with this hypothesis, it has been found that the impact of many life events on the three indicators of SWB often diminishes within about 3 months for many persons,16 and even many major life changes—both positive (e.g., winning the lottery) and negative (e.g., incurring a spinal cord injury)—tend to have a limited effect on life satisfaction over the long run.17 However, life events associated with significant loss or chronic stress have the potential to diminish long-term life satisfaction, and there are substantial individual differences in emotional adaptation after such events.18

The dynamic equilibrium hypothesis implies that each person has a characteristic affective "set point." Just as a thermostat automatically adjusts ambient temperature to conform with a pre-set target, an affective set point would allow for some fluctuations about one's typical level of SWB—positive and negative life events may cause one's usual emotional temperature to rise or fall, so to speak. But over time, this perturbation somehow engages homeostatic emotional regulation processes that gradually bring SWB back to the person's normative set point. This hypothesis is associated with what may be termed the "strong nature view" of SWB. Such a view is supported by behavior genetic findings suggesting that a large portion of the variance in current and (even more so) long-term SWB is due to genetic factors.19

Advocates of the strong nature view have concluded that SWB is itself essentially a trait that is regulated through more or less involuntary biological processes. McCrae and Costa,20(p 228) for example, suggested that "happiness and the chronic emotional reactions that underlie it are probably best understood as reflections of enduring dispositions." Meehl21 referred humorously to "cerebraljoy-juice" and "basic hedonic capacity" (i.e., largely heritable properties that produce differential susceptibility to positive and negative emotions) and also offered an "old Wild West maxim" that "some men are just born three drinks behind"(p. 298). Likewise, Lykken and Tellegen19(p189) argued that trying to be happier is likely futile and that long-term well-being is "determined by the great genetic lottery that occurs at conception."

So what does the strong nature, or behavior genetics, view of SWB imply about emotional recovery in the context of cancer survival? First, it suggests that cancer survivors have experienced a life event with the potential to significantly decrease their life satisfaction and typical positive affect (and to raise their characteristic level of negative affect), at least in the short run. Second, it implies that many, though not all, cancer survivors will tend to gradually return to their pre-cancer levels of SWB—in other words, emotional resilience (defined in terms of return to one's personal baseline) is normative. Third, it suggests that the emotional recovery process is mostly "a matter of time" and "letting nature takes its course." That is,

SWB is likely to restabilize no matter what the patient does and in the absence of psychotherapeutic or pharmacological intervention.

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