(change-of-venue via www.flickr.com creative commons)
There's a school of psychology which holds that happiness is subjective. Good or bad things happen in life, but people return to the same base level of happiness.
This theory, while up for debate in extreme cases, was established in regard to common life events by a 2008 article by Andrew E. Clark, Ed Diener, Yannis Georgellis, and Richard E. Lucas in The Economic Journal.
Studying twenty years of survey data from Germany, researchers found evidence that people adapt completely to marriage, divorce, widowhood, birth of child, and layoff.
Death of a spouse, for instance, is a terrible event characterized by a radical drop in happiness, but in the year that follows happiness rises, and within two years happiness returns to normal and may even rise above the baseline (as the subject gets caught in another hedonic cycle).
A similar hedonic pattern follows most negative events—and positive ones too. People get over it.
Below is a set of charts from the paper, used with permission from Wiley (buy the full paper here).
You may be surprised to see what events produce increases and decreases in happiness. Note, however, that in almost every chart happiness level reverts to the baseline. The only exception to reversion was in the case of male unemployment, which seems to induce unhappiness as long as it lasts.
We came across the marriage chart in Thinking, Fast And Slow by economist Daniel Kahneman.
While the chart may seem to suggest that marriages get worse over time, Kahneman says this is not the case and rather that people start to take marriage for granted. Ask a recently married man how happy he is, and he will likely think about his marriage and say he is happy. Ask a long-married man how happy he is, however, and he is less likely to think about his marriage and more likely to think about his job, health, or other concerns and may answer less positively.
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