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.
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.