April 21, 2003


Does a Ring Bring Happiness, or Vice Versa? (Shankar Vedantam, April 21, 2003, Washington Post)
[Richard E.] Lucas's study concludes that people have a happiness "set point" to which they return after marriage and other life events. The study is part of a broad inquiry into psychological adaptation, the notion that people "are doomed to experience stable levels of well-being because, over time, they adapt to even the most extreme positive and negative life circumstances."

Studies have shown, for example, that people who win large amounts of money through the lottery get a temporary boost in happiness from winning, but the emotional high quickly subsides to pre-winning levels.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that people who face tragedy -- such as a devastating spinal cord injury -- also adapt. One study of such disabled people found that while negative emotions overwhelmed them immediately after the misfortune, patients' feelings were more positive than negative eight weeks later.

David Lykken, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study comparing the happiness of middle-aged twins. Though siblings experienced very different life circumstances, genetically identical pairs had similar levels of happiness. Lykken's conclusion: "Happiness varies around a genetically determined set point."

Still, adaptation studies have been difficult to conduct on questions of romance and happiness, because they run into chicken-and-egg questions. By examining long-term happiness levels in a large group of people before they got married, after marriage, and if they divorced, Lucas and a team of other researchers were able to tease apart the happiness mystery.

When people are asked to rate how happy they are on a scale of zero to 10, most score between 5.5 to 8, Lucas said. People who eventually got married scored, on average, a quarter-point higher on this scale before marriage.

During the year before marriage -- presumably a period of courtship and falling in love -- these people's happiness rose by another fifth of a point. Immediately after marriage, they got a boost of yet another fifth of a point.

Given that most people rate their happiness within a 2.5-point range, a total difference of two-thirds of a point is considerable, said Lucas. But two years after marriage, he found that the married people's happiness levels had dropped back down to a quarter point higher than average -- exactly what they were before marriage. [...]

While the study examined heterosexual marriage and happiness, Lucas said his "intuition is these processes apply to lots of other relationships," including gay and cohabiting couples.

Though skeptical about the survey--before you can use a twin study to even begin to show it's nature not nurture it would have to be twins separated at birth--two eternal truths are implicated by the discussion: (1) of course people adapt even to catastrophic injury, which is one reason why euthanasia, which preys on people at their low points, is so evil; (2) the idea that straight couples are "intuitively" similar to gay couples is ludicrous. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2003 1:31 PM

Quantifying the unquantifiable.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2003 4:01 PM

Ah, sweet dream of reason....

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2003 4:55 PM

Perhaps the conclusion is simply that optimists are more likely to get married...

(for this we needed a study?)

Posted by: mike earl at April 22, 2003 4:23 PM