In Pursuit of Happiness: Empirical Answers to Philosophical Questions
Pelin Kesebir and Ed Diener
Perspectives on Psychological Science
March 2008 – Vol. 3 Issue 2, pages 117–125
Since the early studies showing that lottery winners were not happier than controls and that even paralyzed accident victims revert approximately to their initial levels of happiness (e.g., Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978), the hedonic treadmill theory—the idea that our emotional systems adjust to almost anything that happens in our lives, good or bad—has been embraced by psychologists as a guiding principle in happiness research. In affiliation with the hedonic treadmill model, the set-point theory posits that major life events, such as marriage, the death of a child, or unemployment, affect a person’s happiness only temporarily, after which the person’s happiness level regresses to a default determined by genotype (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). The implication of these assertions is that no matter how hard we try to be happier, adaptation on the one hand and our temperament on the other will ensure that our venture will remain just a futile rat race with an illusory goal.
Our conviction is that the time is ripe for a revision of hedonic adaptation theories. Accumulating evidence reveals that, even though adaptation undeniably occurs to some extent and personal aspirations do rise and adjust, people do not adapt quickly and/or completely to everything (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2003, 2004), for example, have observed in a 15-year longitudinal study that individuals who experienced unemployment or widowhood did not, on average, fully recover and return to their earlier life satisfaction levels. Other studies have shown that people hardly, if ever, adapt to certain elements in their lives such as noise, long commutes, or interpersonal conflict (Haidt, 2006), whereas other events such as plastic surgery may have long-lasting positive effects on one’s psychological well-being (Rankin, Borah, Perry, & Wey, 1998).