Womankind 6: Mona Lisa

The science of everlasting happiness

Comments Off on The science of everlasting happiness
by Antonia Case on November 20, 2015

Imagine holding in your hand a winning lottery ticket of $1 million. This is the ticket that will empower you to live out your dreams. You will be able to buy and do whatever you please. Life will be happy forever after. Or not?

The quest for happiness reminds me of that song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can’t I?

Over the years, psychologists in great numbers have attempted to crack the happiness code. If the code to happiness were exposed, what a jewel of knowledge to behold! We’d know (at last) the answers to those nagging questions: Does money bring happiness? Is perfect health essential for happiness? Are people with children happier than those without? Is winning the lottery the secret to everlasting happiness?

In 1978, psychologist Philip Brickman and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper compared the happiness levels of three groups of people – 22 lottery winners, 29 paralysed accident victims and a control group of 22 people. The psychologists wanted to find out whether lottery winners were in actual fact happier than paralysed accident victims, a rather odd question to ask, because, well, who would think otherwise.

The psychologists collated the data and compiled the results, and years later, the findings are still quoted from this most famous paper, a wonderful achievement for Brickman, only soured by the fact that he took his own life four years after the paper was released.

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

So what did the study discover that was so controversial? That the pursuit of happiness is futile unless one happens to land the jackpot?

Quite the opposite, in fact. Brickman and his colleagues quietly uncovered that lottery winners were in actual fact no happier than people in the control group in the study. What’s more, paraplegics were only slightly less happy than the lottery winners.

The findings are a practical example of what psychologists call adaptation – which is that humans have a handy knack of adapting to both good and bad events in life. According to adaptation level theory, a stroke of good fortune, like winning the lottery, brings on such a spike in momentary happiness that everyday events in proceeding years will feel a tad dull in comparison. “While winning $1 million can make new pleasures available, it may also make old pleasures seem less enjoyable,” Brickman and his colleagues wrote, in Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?

Furthermore, humans habituate to life events – in other words, we become accustomed or used to something, whatever it is. “Thus lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth,” Brickman writes. Over time, the thrill just wears off.

Apparently, a similar process happens with accident victims, as incomprehensible as this seems at first. Following an accident, a victim will experience a small lift in everyday pleasures when contrasted with the “extreme negative anchor of the accident”. And through the process of habituation, the negative effect of the accident on general everyday happiness recedes over time.

What the researchers learnt was that individuals are born, more or less, with a uniquely personal happiness threshold, what Brickman calls a “set point”. Whatever life throws at us – both good and bad – we typically gravitate back to this personal happiness set point – determined by our personality traits (from birth).

Personality, it seems, trumps the lottery when it comes to attaining everlasting happiness.

The psychologists conclude that for the lucky few born with a ‘happy disposition’, life will be pretty dandy no matter what. As for the rest of us, well, we need to keep working on happiness; it’s a commitment. Perhaps an important point to take from the study is that happiness is more likely found from ‘within’ ourselves, that we shouldn’t expect life events to provide happiness for us. Equally, we mustn’t forget that no matter what disasters may strike, it seems that time does indeed heal all wounds.

So next time you say to yourself – “if only I got promoted, if only I owned that house, if only I had more money I’d be happy,” just consider the negating effects of adaptation and habituation.

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