People in the midst of divorce, job loss or a health crisis are often led to believe their lives will be richer, deeper, even happier for the experience -- but new research says it isn't necessarily so. A recent study challenges aspects of the classic "happiness set-point" theory which points to in-born personality factors as being the primary determinant of happiness. Under set-point theory even major changes in life circumstances do not have a long-term effect. However, says lead researcher Richard Lucas, PhD, a psychology assistant professor at Michigan State University, traumatic life events such as divorce, job loss or disability from, say, major illness matter deeply and may shift your happiness set-point permanently south. Dr. Lucas shared what he learned about happiness and offered advice on what you can do to stay positive in the face of difficulties.
IF YOU'RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT...According to the happiness set-point theory, challenges and crises can temporarily move people away from their set point, but their basic outlook and coping skills will eventually settle back at their original level. While Dr. Lucas agrees that personality traits play a strong role in happiness, his research shows that long-term levels of happiness can and often do change after experiencing a major life event -- not necessarily returning to where they were before.
To take a closer look at the nature of happiness, Dr. Lucas examined two large-scale studies in Great Britain (more than 27,000 participants) and Germany (nearly 40,000 participants). Participants in Germany were followed for up to 21 years, and participants in Great Britain for up to 14 years. Using self-reporting scales, researchers measured their levels of satisfaction before and after major events such as marriage, divorce, job loss, widowhood and disability. People seemed to adapt fairly quickly to marriage and even widowhood, though that took longer. However, their emotional state was more often permanently altered by divorce, unemployment or the onset of a long-term disability, according to Dr. Lucas.
Specifically, researchers found that...
- Most people adapt to marriage within a few years. However (no surprise here) there is a great deal of variability, with some getting a long-term boost and others a long-term decline, depending on how good the marriage is.
- On average, people take about seven years to adjust to the loss of a spouse.
- Following divorce, unemployment or physical debilitation from a major illness or injury, people generally do not return to their prior level of happiness.
FACING REALITY IS WHAT HELPSWhile Dr. Lucas's research may sound defeatist, it is helpful to consider it a learning tool rather than a reason to give up. For those who have experienced a traumatic event, Dr. Lucas says it's a good idea to set "challenging but realistic goals" to bolster your sense of accomplishment and esteem. Also helpful is having -- and seeking -- good social relationships, as studies have shown the physical and emotional health benefits of a strong support group.
In the long run, though, what may help most of all is taking the pressure off yourself for not feeling entirely happy with your new situation, realizing that such events are very traumatic and they do, in fact, change your world. Understanding that the success and happiness you find may look and feel very different than what you've experienced in the past is one key to finding your "new" way to feeling good.
Also remember that challenges present an opportunity for growth and personal development -- but avoiding the subsequent soul searching and not questioning personal assumptions can and usually will leave you worse off. If you are able to become more honest with yourself and others, and allow yourself to benefit from the awakening that challenge may bring, then adversity may indeed present an unexpected blessing and evidence of grace -- and these are certainly seeds from which happiness can grow.
Richard Lucas, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.
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