Psychologists find pursuit of happiness not a straight path

March 08, 2007

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Happily ever after isn't a given.

Achievable, yes, says a Michigan State University psychologist. But after analyzing years of data tracking people through their lives of joys and sorrows, scientists conclude that major changes in life circumstances - like marriage, divorce, or debilitating illness - can indeed have long-term impact on happiness levels.

In the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Richard Lucas, associate professor of psychology, reviews some recent studies that fly in the face of the popular belief that general happiness levels were a constant and impervious to long-term change.

In fact, some downturns do stay down for some people, said Lucas, who also is affiliated with the German Institute for Economic Research.

"Even though happiness is heritable and relatively stable, it can change," Lucas said. "Happiness levels do change, adaptation is not inevitable and life events do matter."

The party line for most psychologists has been that happiness - or what psychologists call subjective well-being - is largely independent of life circumstances. The dominant model: People adapt to major life events, both positive and negative, and happiness pretty much stays constant through life, even if it is occasionally disrupted.

Under this theory, winning the lottery won't make you happier in the long run and while a divorce or even a major illness will throw your life into upheaval for a while, your happiness level will eventually return to where it was at before - that is, its set point.

Lucas and his colleagues, however, looked at two large national prospective panel studies, one in Germany and the other in Great Britain. These studies - spanning some 24 years in Germany and 15 years in Great Britain - captured levels of life satisfaction both prior to and after major life events like marriage, divorce, unemployment and illness or disability.

Lucas found that not all of life's slings and arrows are created equal. On average, most people adapt quickly to marriage, for example -- within a couple of years. People mostly adapt to the sorrows of losing a spouse too, but this takes longer -- about seven years. In general, people spike in happiness, then return to previous levels of happiness.

People who get divorced and people who become unemployed, however, do not, on average, return to the level of happiness they were at previously. The same can be said about physical debilitation.

Numerous recent studies have demonstrated that major illnesses and injury result in significant, lasting decreases in subjective well-being.

But Lucas also found that individual differences play an important role, which shows up in the stastics. Behind that statistic that most people adapt to marriage in two years are people who are happier after two years of marriage - and people who are less happy after two years.

Lucas stresses that his findings do not undercut the importance of adaptation processes. It also poses more interesting questions.

"We see some hints in these studies, like perhaps that people who are positive emotionally tend to bounce back more, or that good social relationships play a role," he said. "We need to understand the variability in the way people react."
-end-


Michigan State University

Related Happiness Articles from Brightsurf:

Happiness and the evolution of brain size
Serotonin can act as a growth factor for the stem cells in the fetal human brain that determine brain size.

The key to happiness: Friends or family?
Think spending time with your kids and spouse is the key to your happiness?

Hedonism leads to happiness
Relaxing on the sofa or savoring a delicious meal: Enjoying short-term pleasurable activities that don't lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control, according to new research from the University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands.

When it comes to happiness, what's love got to do with it?
Researchers from Michigan State University conducted one of the first studies of its kind to quantify the happiness of married, formerly married and single people at the end of their lives to find out just how much love and marriage played into overall well-being.

Health and happiness depend on each other, Psychological Science says
New research adds to the growing body of evidence that happiness not only feels good, it is good for your physical health, too.

Happiness might protect you from gastrointestinal distress
Serotonin, a chemical known for its role in producing feelings of well-being and happiness in the brain, can reduce the ability of some intestinal pathogens to cause deadly infections, new research by UT Southwestern scientists suggests.

Spending on experiences versus possessions advances more immediate happiness
Consumers are happier when they spend their money on experiential purchases versus material ones, according to research from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Braces won't always bring happiness
Research undertaken at the University of Adelaide overturns the belief that turning your crooked teeth into a beautiful smile will automatically boost your self-confidence.

In China, a link between happiness and air quality
In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, a research team led by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate, and the Faculty Director of MIT China Future City Lab, reveals that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people's happiness levels.

The 17 different ways your face conveys happiness
Human beings can configure their faces in thousands and thousands of ways to convey emotion, but only 35 expressions actually get the job done across cultures, a new study has found.

Read More: Happiness News and Happiness Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.