Science Watch

In 1978, a team of psychologists from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts published Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study (Vol. 35, No. 8, pages 917-927) that found lottery winners were not significantly happier than control-group participants and that patients with spinal-cord injuries "did not appear nearly as unhappy as might be expected." Ever since then, many in psychological and social science circles have taken for granted that people return to a relatively stable "happiness set point," even after seemingly life-changing events.

"It might be sensible for foraging animals to continue to be inquisitive even when they find plenty of food," says Andrew Oswald, PhD, of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. "Nature didn't want us to get fat and happy too quickly. And likewise, if animals were designed to get depressed and stay depressed, that might not be very sensible either."

However, a growing number of researchers are questioning whether that set point exists. Some, such as Oswald, suggest that despite people's resiliency, they do not necessarily return to a particular level of happiness. Others suggest that psychologists also need to take into account environmentalfactors' impact on well-being. And in either case, people may be able to make a conscious choice to improve their well-being, psychologists say.

When divorce equals happiness

Money can buy at least some lasting happiness, says Oswald, pointing to his January Journal of Health Economics (Vol. 26, No. 1, pages 49-60) study. The study compared longitudinal data on a random sample of Britons who had lottery wins between £1,000-120,000 with two control groups, one that did not win the lottery and one that had small wins.

The study, which found that lottery winners' mental health increased an average of 1.4 points on a 36-point scale, suggests that windfalls are followed by a mental health improvement-even a year and a half after the win. That finding strikes a blow to the notion that people return to a set point of subjective well-being, he says.

That research also bolstered Oswald's previous finding in a 2006 Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Vol. 126, No. 2, pages 319-336) article that found divorcing couples become happier after their separation was finalized. The study compared couple's mental well-being two years before marital breakdown and two years after the separation.

"These data are showing that some common sense intuitions are correct," he says. "It is nice to get cash and for some people, getting out of a marriage is the right thing to do."

Dovetailing results, published in an April Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 4, pages 717-730) study provide further evidence that happiness can change over time.

For instance, if a man whose satisfaction score measured in the 38th percentile when the study began experienced an "average disability" during the study, he saw his satisfaction score fall to the 24th percentile on average, says study author and Michigan State University psychology professor Richard Lucas, PhD. If he suffered a more severe disability, on average, he dropped to the 13th percentile.

Yet despite the decline, Lucas notes that people who suffer disabilities do surprisingly well.

"You won't be depressed or miserable, but that doesn't mean that you adapt to that event," he says.

As a result, Lucas suggests that set point exists, but the concept needs to be refined.

"If the adaptation effects were as strong as many assume they are, then we would bounce back from just about any life event," he says. "But it turns out that might not be the case."

Choosing happiness

The lasting joys of a lottery win or divorce, or the prolonged impact of adisability may be because happiness is the product of a mood set point andcognition, says University of Toronto at Mississauga psychology professor Ulrich Schimmack, PhD. In fact, their contributions may be 50-50, according to a longitudinal study published in the January Journal of Applied Social Science Studies (Vol. 127, No. 1). In the article, Schimmack found that once couples married, their life satisfaction measures generally changed in the same direction, suggesting that environmental factors, such as a child's birth or a job loss, affect their well-being. However, the participants' happiness was relatively stable over the course of 22 years, suggesting the influence of the set point, he says.

Still, people who want to become happier should consider focusing on changing their situations rather than their moods, Schimmack suggests.

"There is a certain irony because the other aspects of happiness that are not reflected in emotions are easier to achieve," he says. "But we try to chase emotional well-being, which is more closely related to the set point idea."

However, researchers such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a University of California, Riverside psychology professor, suggest that with effort, people can create a long-term, lasting well-being increase.

For instance, research shows that people can increase their happiness by making a conscious effort to count their blessings, reframe situations in a positive light or perform kind acts, says Lyubomirsky.

In her work, she found that immediately after the intervention, participants who expressed gratitude and optimism felt happier and less depressed than the control group. And the effect persisted for six and nine months after the study.

The finding, she says, is consistent with the set-point theory because the happier participants, in effect, were choosing to keep their moods elevated.

"We adapt completely to positive experiences, unless we actively and intentionally use strategies to impede adaptation," she says.

Zak Stambor is a Chicago-based freelance writer.