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Health & Balance

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Can Your Happiness Change for Good?

Major Life Events May Shift Your Long-Term Happiness Level
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 Psychological Science.

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 events.

That doesn't mean getting divorced or losing a job always lowers long-term happiness.

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 notes.

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.

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