Even after loss, we eventually return to a baseline level of happiness

Coping: We have greater skills of adaptation than we give ourselves credit for

Though our lives can be altered by means within our control or outside it, we have a tendency to think negatively about change, and for good reason.

Though our lives can be altered by means within our control or outside it, we have a tendency to think negatively about change, and for good reason.

 

Change, and the prospect of it, is one aspect of our lives which is wholly dependent on perspective. When something is going well, the instinct to hunker down and consider our good fortune a fixed state of being is primal. Under these conditions, it is easy to fear change.

Though our lives can be altered by means within our control or outside it, we have a tendency to think negatively about change, and for good reason. We will often regard positive changes in our lives – starting a relationship with a new partner, earning a promotion we have worked hard for – as a form of meritocratic evolution.

We met a new partner because we decided to make a dating profile online and get out there 

For the most part, these changes didn’t happen “to” us, we’ll think. We met a new partner because we decided to make a dating profile online and get out there and meet people. We earned the promotion by working hard when others were at home with their families or enjoying leisure time.

These are changes, but we saw them coming because we helped to engineer them into reality through volitional action. When we say “I don’t like change”, what we really mean is “I don’t like confirmation that there are aspects of my life I can’t control”. Unfortunately, this is a challenging, and ultimately untenable – position to hold. If we live long enough, we will eventually be blindsided by significant and perhaps shocking change several times.

 Most usually, this change will take the form of loss. Loss of a partner in a relationship breakup, the death of someone close to us, or (at least what we perceive to be) some important failure to meet a standard that we set for ourselves, or that others set for us. All of these losses incur a change, and the understanding that our lives will now look different to the way they had looked before, or to the life we had imagined for ourselves. A period of mourning will ensue for what we had, or the treasured potential future we feel we have lost.

 In 1978, a now-famous adaptation theory study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article is called “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” and you can find it easily enough online. The study gained everyday fame and may still ring a bell all these years later because its authors, Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman, found that lottery winners and people paralysed by terrible accidents both return to their baseline level of happiness within a number of months. Not just this, but both groups studied reported similar baseline happiness. This is an astonishing finding, given that one group has lucked out in our society’s most coveted manner, literally gaining vast wealth without having done anything to earn it, and the other has suffered one of the cruellest hardships life can bestow – being rendered paraplegic.

Each new change, however difficult, also brings a reminder that we have survived the ones up to this point

The journal article is fascinating and accessible reading, and though there are some legitimate criticisms to be levelled against it, it does pose some interesting questions relating to how we feel about change in the abstract as opposed to how we manage it when the need actually arises. Though major changes will always cause upheaval, we tend to cope with them as we have coped with other changes in the past, and each new one presents an opportunity to develop better coping mechanisms. Each new change, however difficult, also brings a reminder that we have survived the ones up to this point.

 If someone were to ask “What’s the worst thing that has happened to you?”, some major event which changed the course or quality of your life will come instantly to mind. It should also bring forth the realisation that despite what will likely be many periods of flux in our sense of internal wellbeing, there is a familiar point to which most people tend to return.

The mildly pessimistic person will settle back to being exactly that after the initial months of positive change have passed. We have greater skills of adaptation than we give ourselves credit for. Just as many of us have the power to become complacent in the swaddling of good luck or success, so too do we have the power to find a sense of normality after terrible hardships.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.