First, the bad news: If you think you will be happy when the recession is over, you won’t. Or at least you will not be any happier (or more miserable) than you were before.
If the recession were to suddenly end today, sure, for a moment we would probably lock arms and sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” for a day or two. But that happy feeling would quickly fade and we would go back to our day-to-day lives.
There is a scientific phrase for this phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” also called the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s a fancy way of saying we “get used to it.” This is why the big-ticket items on which we so often hang our hope do not bring lasting happiness. Examples include getting married, getting promoted, having a baby, retiring or losing that last 10 pounds. If you were a sad or happy person before these life events, you will eventually return to your usual state.
According to a now famous study by Daniel Coates and Phillip Brickman, even winning the lottery brings us only a temporary happiness boost. This surprising finding has been validated repeatedly since the jaw-dropping declaration in 1978.
So, if winning the lottery will not make us lastingly happier, then the financial absence of misery will surely not do the trick either.
Ironically, we were not all that happy before the recession hit. Once upon a time governments used a nation’s Gross Domestic Product to measure its happiness. According to Nancy Etcoff’sTED talks video, while our GDP was up, so were our rates of depression and anxiety. Ectoff said our level of life satisfaction has remained “flat as the surface of the moon”.
On the other hand, while money does not buy much happiness, it can fend off misery. If one does not have enough money for food, shelter or other basic necessities, then the lack of money will affect one’s level of happiness.
However, once over the poverty line, the amount of additional money adds surprisingly little to our happiness. In fact, Joe Average has a slightly better chance of being happier than millionaires. Studies have found that exceedingly rich people are a little less happy than most people.
It’s not that changes in life circumstances do not add to our overall levels of happiness at all — just not nearly as much as we think they will. In her book “The How of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky reports that changes in life circumstances will attribute only about 10 percent to our subjective well being — because the effects do not last.
The good news is that the same is true of bad breaks and tragedy. When devastation strikes, it will last for a time but we will buoy back to our usual level of happiness.
The trick is not to rely on a quick injection of joy but to raise our overall level of happiness with the little, day-to-day things. In my recent article, Antidepressants don’t appear to work for most Utahns, I mentioned optimism as a key component to happiness because it is part of our very belief system — the lens through which we view our world.
What is your explanatory style when things go badly? Are you quick to say, “I can’t do anything right”? If you were to win the aforementioned lottery, would you be the person that immediately thinks of how much you would have to pay in taxes?
It is not external events that cause lasting happiness. Your happiness is based on your attitude and your daily habits.
Frank Clayton is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Salt Lake City. He specializes in happiness. He teaches other therapists and professionals about positive psychology and has been teaching Happiness 101 to the public for over two years.