Adaptation to new new circumstances? — happiness

An interesting story about research on well-being and our understanding of it was published today in the NYT. The issue is whether people get used to new life circumstances and, as a consequence, their long-term happiness (well-being) is not affected. Basically, a large body of research on well-being suggests that people in general become used to new circumstances to an extent that is beyond their, and others’, initial estimates (Diener and Diener 1996; Diener and Suh 1997; Gilbert et al. 1998; Kahneman 1999; Schkade and Kahneman 1998). For example, it has even been suggested that people who sustain a substantial injury are not much worse off than people who have not (Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman 1978). The story in the NYT describes some new research that questions these findings.

Here are some personal reflections on this topic:

It is difficult for me to examine my personal experiences in hospital and propose that my well-being has not decreased substantially. On the other hand, it is obvious that I also attribute some positive aspects to my injury—leading a life that seems to have adapted to these new circumstances.

Thus, it seems that my personal reflections are only in partial agreement with the literature on well being. In terms of agreement with adaptation, I find myself to be relatively happy in day-to-day life—beyond the level predicted (by others as well as by myself) for someone with this type of injury. Mostly, this relative happiness can be attributed to the human flexibility of discovering activities and outlets and finding in these, fulfillment, interest, and satisfaction. For example, I found a profession that provides me with a wide-ranging flexibility in my daily life, reducing the adverse effects of my limitations on my ability. Being able to find happiness in new ways and to adjust one’s dreams and aspirations to a new direction is clearly an important human ability that muffles the hardship of wrong turns in life circumstances. It is possible that individuals who are injured during the later stages of their lives, when they are more set in terms of their goals, have more difficulty adjusting to such life-changing events.

However, these reflections also point to substantial disagreements with the current literature on well-being. For example, there is no way that I can convince myself that I am as happy as I would have been without the injury. Not a day goes by during which I do not feel pain, or realize the disadvantages of my situation. Despite this daily awareness, if I had participated in a study on well-being and had been asked to rate my daily happiness on a scale from 0 (not at all happy) to 100 (extremely happy), I would have probably provided a high number, probably as high as I would have given if I had not had this injury. Yet, such high ratings of daily happiness would have been high only relative to the top of my privately defined scale, which has been adjusted downward to accommodate the new circumstances and possibilities (Grice 1975). Thus, while it is possible to show that ratings of happiness are not influenced much based on significant life events, it is not clear that this measure reflects similar affective states.

As a mental experiment, imagine yourself in the following situation: How would you rate your overall life satisfaction a few years after sustaining a serious injury? How would your ratings reflect the impact of these new circumstances? Now imagine that you had to choose whether you wanted this injury. Imagine further that you were asked how much you would have paid to avoid sustaining this injury. I propose that in such cases, the ratings of overall satisfaction would not be substantially influenced by the injury, while the choice and willingness to pay would be—and to a very large degree.

Thus, while I believe that there is some adaptation and adjustment to new life circumstances, I also believe that the extent to which such adjustments can be seen as reflecting true adaptation (such as in the physiological sense of adaptation to light for example) is overstated. Happiness can be found in many places, and individuals cannot always predict their ability to do so. Yet, this should not undermine our understanding of horrific life events, or reduce our effort to eliminate them.