Personal level of happiness, a point to which we constantly return

A successful career and a successful marriage could be considered reasons for happiness in a person’s life, but long-term happiness may not necessarily be achieved in these ways, new research shows.

Personal level of happiness, a point to which we constantly return
A successful career and a successful marriage could be considered reasons for happiness in a person’s life, but long-term happiness may not necessarily be achieved in these ways, new research shows.

We live in a culture that values ​​”experiences.” These are often promoted in the media and by those who sell them as essential to improving our well-being. We all know that truly important life events, such as marriage, childbirth, job loss, or the death of a loved one, can positively or negatively affect our personal condition. But to what extent does this happen and for how long?

A team of researchers aimed to measure the effect of major life events – a total of 18 – on personal well-being. For this, a sample of approximately 14,000 Australian adults was followed for over 16 years. Some of the results were to be expected, others turned out to be surprising.

Overall, the results of the present study show that positive events, such as marriage, improved some aspects of personal well-being, while negative events such as health-related shocks had greater negative effects – as expected. For both types of events, both good and bad, changes in well-being were temporary, usually disappearing 3-4 years after they occurred. What were the most interesting findings of the study?

Happiness Vs. personal satisfaction
The study distinguished between two different aspects of well-being: “happiness” and “satisfaction”. Researchers often treat the two terms as the same thing, but in reality they are different.

On the one hand, happiness is the positive aspect of our emotions. People’s self-reported happiness tends to be fairly stable in adulthood and follows what psychologists call “benchmark theory” – each person has a “normal” level of happiness to which he or she tends to return over time.

On the other hand, the satisfaction of life is determined more by the feeling of fulfillment, of achievement. A person may be satisfied, for example, because he has a good job and a healthy family and yet be unhappy.

Life events often affect happiness and satisfaction in the same way: things that make you happier tend to improve your life satisfaction, but not always, and the magnitude of the effects often varies. In the case of the birth of a child, the contrast is accentuated. Immediately after birth, parents are more satisfied, but less happy, probably due to the demanding requirements associated with caring for a newborn (e.g., sleep deprivation).

Welfare level changes are temporary
After almost all events (both good and bad), well-being tends to return to that personal level that we each have. This process is known as hedonic adaptation – as people adapt to their new circumstances, well-being returns to the baseline. This has been suggested by other studies.

The good news is that even after an extremely unpleasant life event, most people seem to eventually return to their well-being. Even after an extremely negative event, such as the death of a loved one, people’s well-being generally recovers in 2-3 years. This does not mean that the experience did not hurt them or that they do not feel sad sometimes, but that they can feel happy again.

Negative events influence us more strongly
The harmful effects of unpleasant events on well-being outweigh the positive effects of good events. Also, the effects of negative events last longer. This is partly due to the fact that most people are generally happy and satisfied, so there is more “space” to feel worse than better.

In fact, it cannot be said with certainty that there is a cumulative positive effect of good events on happiness. However, marriage, retirement, childbirth and financial gain – all temporarily improve the overall satisfaction of life.

The finding that “losses” affect more than “gains” mirrors decades of research in behavioral economics that shows that people generally put more effort into avoiding losses than pursuing gains. The negative events that have the greatest effects on a person are the death of a spouse or child, serious financial loss, personal injury, illness and separation.

The dismissal has a strong effect, but it passes quickly
A new job, a promotion, a dismissal or a change of address are events that people often remember as stressful or as a reason to celebrate. But, on average, they do not seem to seriously affect well-being, the effects being relatively small and generally transient.

This could be due to differences in the nature of these events for each person or because they occur frequently. For example, being fired can be devastating. But for someone close to retirement age, who also takes a substantial severance pay, it could be a positive experience.

An important element of this study, say the scientists involved, is that it reflects people’s average experiences. There are likely to be, for example, some people who experience lasting improvements in well-being after positive events, not just short-term enthusiasm. Further studies are needed to identify these different people and isolate the characteristics that predict how responses to different events will look.

What really matters in life?
It can be said that the results of the study warn against running

happiness only by living positive experiences. The impact seems small and transient, as hedonic adaptation pulls us back to our well-being limit.

Instead, we may do better by focusing on the things that protect us from feeling overwhelmed by negative events. The most important factors are the strong relationships we establish, good health and managing exposure to financial losses.

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