In honor of one of my new year resolution in 2015 to write a new blog post every week, this will be my last weekly post of 2015. It still does not feel like the end of the year came and went. Ever since my friend asked me about my reflections this past year (which I admit I have completely forgotten to reflect on), I have been doing more thinking and formulating my new year resolution for 2016. No doubt, I will be revisiting the post I wrote last year for some guidelines.
But today, I want to write about happiness. It always amazes and sometimes confuses me how researchers can study this topic. Inherently a subjective matter, happiness is a fluctuating, hard-to-verify measurement unlike other more steady cousins, such as income or GDP. This disadvantage has led some major fields, including Economics, to stay away from tackling this so-called “fluffy” measurement. At the same time, it has intrigued many Psychologists and prompted subfields such as positive psychology.
Lottery Winners and Accident Victims
In a study by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, they asked a bunch of lottery winners and paraplegics about their happiness levels. The hypothesis is that those who had won the lottery will be much happier than others, while those who had lost a limb will be unhappier than others. Not a crazy hypothesis.
People were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 0 to 5 (a 6 point scale) of how positive or negative the event (lottery/accident) was. Surprisingly, the ratings of happiness between the two groups, lottery winners and accident victims, were not that different from each other. Don’t get me wrong – in statistics terms, they were significant, but not by much, considering their difference in magnitude. The average happiness rating for lottery winners was 3.78, while for accident victims it was 1.28 (reminder: this was on a 6-point scale).
Now, the measure used in this experiment is a pretty bad one using only one question and a self-reported survey. People are pretty bad at defining something as broad as “happiness”, everyone interprets the word differently, and self-reported measures are not always honest. So, it is better to compare within subjects, meaning we get the same person to answer the questions so that it’s at least a comparable definition of “happiness”. With this, they found another interesting fact: the happiness level did not increase or decrease after winning the lottery OR after being paralyzed from below the waist.
Wait what? what happened? This is because people adapt to situations extremely quickly. Before we win the lottery, we think that our lives will change dramatically afterwards and we will be super happy. However, a few things happen after you really win the lottery. The usual activities you used to do are less enjoyable now; fun things now feel boring. Secondly, habituation occurs and having lottery cash becomes your new baseline. The same effect goes for paraplegics in the opposite direction.
This paper is one of the more famous experiments showing that happiness is all relative to our baseline. To me, it also remarkably shows how easy we adapt to new environments. For example, you might be convinced that working towards that huge promotion next year will make you happier, but you’ll quickly adjust to it – so don’t spend your whole life in the office and enjoy life! You might think that breaking up with your loved one means you’ll never be happy again, but you’ll adjust to a new norm and soon be happy again.
2016 looks like a year of changes and uncertainty for me, but I’m certain with humans superb adapting ability, it will be a happy year regardless. I wish you all great happiness in 2016! HAPPY NEW YEAR 🙂
Source: Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917.