For the last two decades, one of the central tenets of the self-help movement has been that we can choose to experience or to be whatever we want.
Many psychologists have also said that human happiness or subjective well-being is largely independent of our life circumstances. Therefore wealthy people are no happier than people of more limited means; married people aren't much happier than single people and healthy people aren't much happier than sick people. The keys to happiness are supposed to lie within us, in our attitudes and perceptions.
If these theories are correct – and they are theories – we would predict that changes in our life circumstances would not have long-term effects on our happiness. This has indeed been the dominant model of subjective well-being: people adapt to major life events, both positive and negative, and our happiness stays pretty much constant through our lives, even if it is occasionally perturbed by some big gain or loss. According to the theory, winning the lottery may make you happy for a little while, but it won't make you happier in the long run.
Not unless you have made the choice to be happy.
Similarly, while a divorce or major illness might throw your life into turmoil for a while, your happiness level will eventually return to where it was before. The idea has been that of sense of subjective well-being has a set point, and that a change in beliefs or attitudes can change the set-point.
But is this true?
New research, and reexamination of old research, is challenging some of the claims of set-point theory.
In this month’s issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Richard E. Lucas of Michigan State University and the German Institute for Economic Research, reviews some recent studies suggesting that adaptation to changing life circumstances only goes so far. As he says, "Happiness levels do change, adaptation is not inevitable, and life events do matter.”
To study adaptation, Lucas and his colleagues used data from two large national prospective panel studies, one in Germany and the other in Great Britain. Unlike most previous studies of adaptation, these data were able to capture 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 events are created equal. For example, most people adapt quickly to marriage. They have peak in subjective well-being at the time of getting married, but within about two years, their happiness levels return to their previous levels.
People usually adapt to losing a spouse, but it takes a lot longer: on average about seven years. People who get divorced and people who become unemployed, however, do not usually return to the level of happiness that they experienced before. 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. There is a great deal of individual variation in the degree to which people adapt to what life throws at them. We know that life events run in families: there is a genetic predisposition to having multiple life events. People who are destined to experience certain life events differ in their subjective well-being from those who do not, even before the occurrence of those events. As an example, people who were happy 5 years before their marriage, stay married, and also stay happier than those who are destined to marry and get divorced.
Lucas stresses that his findings do not undercut the importance of adaptation processes. Some degree of adaptation necessarily protects us from prolonged emotional states that may be harmful, and helps us attune to novel threats to our well-being rather than dwell on ones we are familiar with. Adaptation also helps us detach from goals that have proven unrealistic.
So what does this mean to us personally? It is rather like the statement attributed to the German priest and scholar Martin Luther, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Then work as if everything depends on you.”
- Make the choice to be happy, but that choice will, on its own, achieve little unless you also work to change your life circumstances
- The choice to be happy will not be crowned with success unless you really feel that you want it deep down inside: it has to be a core desire
- Not everyone can make the choice because they are not wired that way
- Do not be disheartened if you make the choice to be happy and things don’t quite work out. Some pop psychologists and gurus have told their followers that if they failed to find happiness, then they were inadequate, or did not want it enough. That kind of nonsense can cause needless guilt and suffering. Sometimes life chucks too much at you at once, and it’s okay to be unhappy. It does not mean that you are a wimp, or that you didn’t want happiness enough
- The best way to deal with a world that throws a lot at you is to learn the art and science of resilience and acceptance
But also remember something else: the great sages have always taught that happiness is our natural state, and the art of living is to return to that natural state.
But most importantly, to help others get there as well.
“Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.”
--Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (English Statesman, Novelist and, in 1868 and from 1874-1880, British Prime Minister, 1804-1881)
“Forgiveness is the key to happiness.”
--A Course in Miracles (Book of Spiritual Principles Scribed by Dr. Helen Schucman between 1965 and 1975, and First Published in 1976)
“Happiness is the very nature of the Self; happiness and the Self are not different. There is no happiness in any object of the world.”
--Ramana Maharshi (Indian Hindu Mystic and Spiritual Teacher, 1879-1950)