Can Your Happiness Change for Good?
Major Life Events May Shift Your Long-Term Happiness Level
March 7, 2007 -- Once happy, always happy? Once grumpy, always grumpy? Maybe
not, according to a new review of happiness research.
The review focuses on the "happiness set point" theory, which
suggests that people have a happiness set point, a natural level of happiness
they gravitate to, despite temporary rises and falls in happiness.
But your happiness set point may not be carved in stone, suggests Michigan
State University professor Richard Lucas, PhD.
Major life events such as getting divorced, losing a job, or becoming
disabled may reset your happiness set point, writes Lucas.
"Happiness levels do change; adaptation is not inevitable; and life
events do matter," Lucas says.
His review appears in the April edition of Current Directions in
Psychology of Happiness
Lucas reviewed data from a German study of nearly 40,000 people and a
British study of more than 27,000.
The German study lasted 21 years; the British study for 14 years.
Participants annually rated their life satisfaction and reported any major life
changes they had experienced in the past year.
As the happiness set point theory suggests, people tended to adapt to major
life events. But that process sometimes took many years and didn't always lead
back to previous levels of life satisfaction.
For instance, Lucas notes that it takes about seven years after the death of
a spouse for widows and widowers to return to the level of life satisfaction
they had before their spouse died.
Meanwhile, the temporary bounce in happiness after getting married generally
fades "within just a couple of years," writes Lucas. That doesn't mean
married people are unhappy, just that -- within a few years -- they become
about as happy as they were before saying "I do."
Lucas also noticed that, understandably, people reported less life
satisfaction after getting divorced or losing a job. But he didn't see people
bounce back to their previous level of life satisfaction after those
That doesn't mean getting divorced or losing a job always lowers long-term
Not all marriages or jobs are happy and satisfying. So for some, divorce and
job loss may ultimately lead to a better life.
People also vary a lot in how much they adapt to life events, Lucas
The researcher doesn't dismiss the happiness set point theory. He says
happiness is "moderately stable" over time but warns that people can
still experience "large and lasting changes" in the feeling.