Monday, October 08, 2012

How long does happiness last?

When I had cycled to the Col du Grand Ballon I felt happy. As a reminder of this joyful moment I bought a little souvenir, which I have put in a bookcase in my study, hoping that it will make me happy again every time I look at it. But will it work? Feelings of happiness tend to fade away after some time, even in case the object of happiness or its token is still present every day. There is a theory that says that after three months these feelings have gone. Or rather the feelings of happiness have returned to the original level before the event that raised it took place. The opposite is also true: unhappy events tend to fade away as well. When I buy the house of my dreams, I feel very happy when I open the door for the first time. But gradually I become accustomed to my new property and I don’t feel better anymore than when I opened the door of my previous house. It is the same when I have lost a valuable possession. After some time I have moved it to the backyard of my mind. This seems to be even so for some very radical life changes like winning the jackpot in a lottery. So, in the long run happiness doesn’t depend on incidental events and it is not related to specific life circumstances. In the long run the level of happiness is stable. Psychologists talk about a “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”: each person has an individual level of happiness to which s/he returns after some time. It depends mainly on the person’s character and on genetic factors, although there can be much short-term variation.
However, there are exceptions to the levelling effect. Those who get divorced, unemployed, injured, seriously ill or physically disabled do not, it seems, on average recover the initial level of happiness they previously were at. And there are factors that permanently increase the level, like marriage (but not for everybody). This is an indication that it cannot only be influenced in the short run (buying a house) but also in the long run. The question is: how? And then we are more interested, of course, in the way we can influence our happiness level positively rather than negatively.
The Swiss author Rolf Dobelli, whose interesting book on mistakes in thought brought the theme to my attention, mentions several things you can do in order to prevent that happiness fades away. Much that makes you happy has also negative side effects. If you think that you cannot adapt to them, change your choice. So, don’t buy a house in the countryside far away from your workplace, if you don’t like commuting, for then your happiness can even become a source of unhappiness. Have also an eye for the fact that material things make you only happy for a short time. Moreover, the way you spend your life has a positive or negative effect on your happiness. The more leisure you have and the more autonomous you are, the better it is. In addition, take care of your relations and your reference groups. All such things have an effect on how you feel. I would summarize it this way: For a large part your level of happiness is given by your character and a few other factors, but the variations around this level are a matter of framing.
Nevertheless, it’s my experience that not all incidental feelings of happiness about big or little life events fade away unless you take special measures. Everybody knows that memories can make us happy or sad. I still feel a bit happier when I think of some good races I did in the past as a runner (these are not the very few races I won). And they took place before the theory of the hedonic treadmill had been discovered and when the idea of trying to preserve moments in my mind was still far away from me. Yet I think that a help to call back some nice moments can be useful and that a little souvenir can be such a help.

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