In This Article Subjective Wellbeing Homeostasis

  • Introduction
  • Cannon’s Physiological Homeostasis
  • Open-Managed Systems
  • Ideas of Resilience
  • Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) Stability
  • Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) Homeostasis Theory
  • Optimal Levels of Subjective Wellbeing (SWB)
  • Predictions Arising from the Homeostatic Model
  • Principles for Strengthening Homeostatic Resilience
  • Implications of Homeostasis Theory

Psychology Subjective Wellbeing Homeostasis
Robert A. Cummins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0167


The idea of homeostasis has a long history in physiology, describing a process that maintains important variables within a narrow range of values. Core body temperature is a well-known example, where a variation of just a few degrees higher or lower than normal signals pathology. Within psychology, homeostatic systems are less commonly understood, but one that has received attention is the systematic management of the positive feelings about our self, known as subjective wellbeing (SWB). This article describes evidence for SWB homeostasis. At its core, this involves a set-point, representing the optimal level of SWB for each person. While all set-points lie within a genetically prescribed range, individual set-points are at a constant level within that range, and they provide an unchanging level of positive/activated mood. The experience of this mood, however, is contaminated by moment-to-moment fluctuations in emotional reactions to ideas or events. These emotions shift the experience of SWB away from its set-point, allowing the person to feel more or less positive about themselves than normal. While this is useful in the short term, optimal chronic functioning requires that SWB returns to its set-point level, and this requires the activation of several psychological systems. The capacity of the homeostatic system to achieve such return is a measure of its resilience. The text that follows describes the evidence for each step of this mechanism. The implications for both theory and psychological practice are also considered.

Cannon’s Physiological Homeostasis

The term homeostasis was coined in Cannon 1932 to assist the author’s understanding of the physiological response to stress. Cannon observed that, in response to a perceived threat, the adrenal medulla releases the hormone epinephrine into the blood. This hormone has a coordinating role involving many different body systems. Together, these systems produce a coordinated response to the perceived threat in order to both meet the physiological challenge and also to reestablish equilibrium when the threat is over. Cannon used the term homeostasis to describe this coordinated process. In contemporary physiology, it is recognized that every variable that needs to be maintained within a narrow range, around some specific average value for normal functioning, is managed by a homeostatic system (Rodolfo 2000). The best-known example is the maintenance of core body temperature at 37º C. Other homeostatically managed systems include those for body weight (Friedman 2004) and dopamine (Larhammar, et al. 2015). An additional feature of homeostasis was introduced in Selye 1956 in the form of a homeostatic booster system the author called “heterostasis.” Selye considered that when homeostasis was challenged to the point of failure, the “thermostat of defense” needs to be raised to a higher level. Heterostasis describes the establishment of a new steady state through the activation of normally dormant defensive mechanisms that stimulate the physiologic adaptive mechanisms. Expanding on this idea, the more contemporary term is “allostasis,” coined in Sterling and Eyer 1988 to describe a dynamic form of regulatory control that can be switched on or off to cope with demand (McEwen 1998). Whereas homeostasis is a form of regulation designed to defend a single, constant value or “set-point,” allostasis describes adaptation in variables such as blood pressure, where the level of optimal functioning varies with demand. This term also emphasizes regulation in anticipation of change, such as anticipatory stress (Sapolsky 1994). Thus, allostatic regulation emphasizes feed-forward regulatory systems and anticipatory actions that allow, for example, adaptive social behaviors in a constantly changing environment (Schulkin 2011). In the current context of managing subjective wellbeing (SWB), it is proposed that both homeostatic and allostatic processes are involved. Homeostatic processes are responsible for the normal stability of SWB around a set-point for each person. Subsidiary allostatic processes are responsible for shifting the current level of SWB to match situational demands.

  • Cannon, W. B. 1932. The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton.

    E-mail Citation »

    This author coined the term homeostasis to describe the property of a system that regulates its internal environment so as to maintain a stable, relatively constant level of some variable, such as body temperature (see Introduction, pp. 19–26).

  • Friedman, J. M. 2004. Modern science versus the stigma of obesity. Nature Medicine 10.6: 563–569.

    DOI: 10.1038/nm0604-563E-mail Citation »

    This review determines that the heritability of obesity is 0.7 to 0.8. This level of genetic attribution is greater than that of almost every other condition that has been studied. It is concluded that energy balance within the body is regulated with a precision greater than 99.8 percent, which far exceeds the precision which could be maintained by conscious processes such as “will-power.”

  • Larhammar, M., K. Patra, M. Blunder, et al. 2015. SLC10A4 is a vesicular amine-associated transporter modulating dopamine homeostasis. Biological Psychiatry 77.6: 526–536.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.07.017E-mail Citation »

    The neuromodulatory transmitters, biogenic amines, have profound effects on multiple neurons and are essential for normal behavior and mental health. This report concerns the orphan transporter SLC10A4. In the brain, SLC10A4 is exclusively expressed in presynaptic vesicles of monoaminergic and cholinergic neurons, and has a regulatory role in dopamine homeostasis.

  • McEwen, B. S. 1998. Stress, adaptation, and disease: Allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 840:33–44.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09546.xE-mail Citation »

    The author reviews allostasis as adaptive systems that are designed to be turned on and turned off efficiently, and not too frequently. However, if such systems are overstimulated and overused, such high levels of “allostatic load” are likely to create pathology.

  • Rodolfo, K. 2000. What is Homeostasis? Scientific American.

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    This paper provides an easy-to-read introduction to the construct of homeostasis.

  • Sapolsky, R. M. 1994. Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. New York: W. H. Freeman.

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    This delightful book takes up the issue of allostasis in relation to stress responses. It discusses the special sensitivity of humans to psychogenic stress, stress-related disease, and mechanisms of coping with stress.

  • Schulkin, J. 2011. Social allostasis: Anticipatory regulation of the internal milieu. Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience 2:111.

    DOI: 10.3389/fnevo.2010.00111E-mail Citation »

    This paper provides a comprehensive review of homeostasis, allostasis, and the differences between them. Other terms, coined to describe this conceptual space, are also considered. An extensive list of references is provided.

  • Selye, H. 1956. The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Prior to Selye, researchers studied only stress in specific systems. Here he describes the “general adaptation syndrome” as a generalized response to stress that develops in three stages: the alarm reaction, the stage of resistance, and the stage of exhaustion. The syndrome is adaptive because it stimulates defense.

  • Sterling, P., and J. Eyer. 1988. Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology. In Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health. Edited by S. Fisher and J. Reason, 629–649. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    This important publication introduced the concept of “allostasis” and distinguishes it from homeostasis. Whereas homeostasis concerns regulation around a set-point, allostasis concerns variable regulation to achieve an optimal functional level to match demand.

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