There is a YOU in happiness
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|Wed, 05-07-2003 - 2:57am|
THERE IS A 'YOU' IN HAPPINESS, RELATIONSHIP RESEARCHERS FIND
By Shankar Vedantam - LA Times-Washington Post Services
Does your date/partner/spouse make you miserable? Meet Richard Lucas.
The Michigan psychologis has come up with strong evidence that happiness in relationships and marriage has less to do with your partner and more to do with yourself.
Contrary to Hollywood fantasy, promises in the presonals and research indicating that married people are happier, Lucas and a group of fellow researchers have found that the level of happiness or unhappiness that people in relationships report is...drum roll...no different thanwhat they reported before the relationship began.
"It will hopefully give people a realistic perspective on what to expect from marriage," said Lucas, a professor from Michigan State University. "There might be lots of benefits, but your happiness level is not going to change."
The research, based on a 15-year study of more than 24,000 people in Germany, addresses one of the most intriguing debates about happinessin relationships. Multiple studies have found that couples - gay and heterosexual, married and unmarried - tend to report being happier than singles.
The question researchers have struggled with is, do relationship make people happier, or are happier people more likely to form relationships?
Lucas' 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 expereicne stable levels of well-being because, over time, they adapt to even the most extreme positive and negative life circumstances.
BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS
Studies have shown, for example, that people who win large amounts of money through the lottery get a temporary boostin 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 tem 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, Lucas said. But two years after marriage, he found that the married people's happiness levels had dropped back down to a quarter point highter than average - exactly what they were before marriage. But what Lucas analyzed the data more closely, he found there were some interesting differences.
"Some people's happiness levelss do (permanently) change quite a bit after they get married," he said. "But on average, people return to where they were. There are many people who expereince really big changes in their satisfaction, but they are balanced out by the people who get negative consequences."
TECHNIQUES FOR HAPPINESS
While Lucxas could not say why some people end up happier in the long run, he said, "If you got a big boost in the three years after marriage, you are likely to get a boost in the years afterwards. The three years after marriage are going to predict how happy you are in the three, four, five years after that."
People who make a point of expressing gratitude for their blessings, for example, have been shown to feel better than those who make a practice of being irritable.
"Entertainment and sex are fine, but the dependable satisfactions come from constructive activities, ranging from cleaning up the yard in spring to writing a paper or helping someone in some significant way." Said Lykken, a professor emeritus of psychology.
Lykken also had a warning: Fearfulness and irritabliliy are among the "thieves of happiness."