July 14, 2008

Life Events Have Only Short-term Effects On Mood

A person's mood is generally unaffected by their life events, according to a study recently published in the Economic Journal.

Researchers from the U.K., U.S. and France conducted a 20-year analysis of the life satisfaction of hundreds of people from Germany. They looked at a psychological process called "adaptation" - the way in which humans adjust to new circumstances, good or bad.

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 60 at onset of the study. Researchers regularly questioned the volunteers about their own happiness. They were also asked to report any major life events so that researchers could make correlations between mood and particular events.

Unemployment caused the longest lasting decline in overall mood in five years after the event.

Researchers noted that other events, such as widowhood or divorce, caused overall mood to decline, but participants eventually adapted.

Even after traumatic events, overall mood dipped but then recovered.

"It's consistent with other findings that people recover from negative events very quickly - there was some literature on people who became paraplegic, who, when interviewed a few years later, had similar levels of happiness to those who had not been affected this way," said Dr. Yannis Georgellis, senior lecturer at Brunel University, and co-author of the report.

"Likewise, there are studies of lottery winners who are no happier in the long term."

Happier events, such as marriage or childbirth, were equally recoverable, researchers said. The happiness increase delivered by the birth of a child lasted for two years before the volunteers' ratings were back to normal.

The study's findings give evidence to support old adages such as "time heals," Dr. Georgellis said.

Additionally, there was enough evidence to show that people tend to operate on an underlying range of happiness, which could be temporarily affected by major events, but not usually for long periods, according to Francois Moscovici, director of psychological consultancy firm White Water Strategies.

"There is the concept of a 'thermostat' of happiness - when a big event happens to you, whether it is positive or negative, the spring stretches, but returns back to its former state quite quickly," Moscovici said.


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