Happiness Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person's Happiness Level Much

Happiness Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person's Happiness Level Much

Happiness Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person's Happiness Level Much

How to be happier.
March 3 2009 10:07 AM

Happiness Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person's Happiness Level Much

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m going to debunk one "happiness myth" that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth #1: Happy People Are Annoying and Stupid .

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Happiness Myth No. 2: People have a happiness set point, and no matter what happens to them, before long, they snap back to their usual happiness level.

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Wrong.

From time to time, someone says to me something like, "Trying to make yourself happier is futile. People have a genetic set point that doesn’t change. I heard about a study of people who became paralyzed, and after a few months, they were back to their old selves!"

It’s true that there’s a powerful genetic link to happiness—usually it’s estimated to be about 40 percent to 50 percent. Some people are born more Tigger-ish, and others are born more Eeyore-ish. And it’s also true that people are amazingly adaptive, both to good and bad fortune. Human resilience is extraordinary.

However, adaptation has its limits.

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About those people who become paralyzed—in a major study looking at the happiness levels of people with disabilities, it turned out that these folks took a big hit when they were injured, and they didn’t all snap back to where they were before. Some, yes, did recover their previous level of happiness, some recovered somewhat, and some didn’t recover much at all.

Major life events can have strong, lasting effects on people’s happiness. For example, although people adapt quickly to marriage, it takes much longer for widows adapt to widowhood. Losing a job, getting divorced—these kinds of events make a significant lasting impact on happiness.

Adaptation varies considerably among people. Some get over changes quickly, while others take much longer to adapt, if they ever do.

This is the way I’ve come to think about this question: People are born with a natural range of temperament, but circumstances, actions, and thoughts can push people up to the top of their range or down to the bottom of their range.

That’s the effect my happiness project has had on me. When I’m in neutral—say, I’m staring out the window of a bus—I’m the same familiar Gretchen. My happiness project hasn’t changed my inborn temperament. (I score 3.92 on a 1-to-5 scale, by the way; take the Authentic Happiness Inventory Questionnaire if you want to test yourself.) The difference is that, because of my happiness project, my daily experience of my life is happier. I have more fun and less guilt. I have more challenge, more novelty, more satisfaction as well as less anger, less boredom, less remorse. That’s how I’ve made myself happier, without changing myself.

If you want to read more about this fascinating debate, check out the chapter "Nature and Nurture: Is There a Happiness Set Point, and Can You Change It?" in Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener’s Happiness and Richard E. Lucas’s "Personality and Subjective Well-Being" in The Science of Subjective Well-Being .

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.