Adaptive Happiness

Adaptive Happiness

You'd never tell a Hurricane Katrina survivor to just “get over it.” But by one scientist's measure, many of them did get over it, and surprisingly quickly.


The surprising nature of happiness. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Only three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, self-reported happiness in the battered Gulf states had generally returned to normal. This may seem unbelievable, but not to University of Michigan economist Miles Kimball, who reported the findings. He says it's a classic example of “hedonic adaptation.”


This is something that psychologists have been studying a lot. Hedonic adaptation is just that in terms of people's emotions, people get over things, and they often get over things fairly quickly.

His research shows that our day-to-day happiness is generally driven by very recent news. And he's found that world events, like the Pakistan earthquake, can affect us almost as strongly as more personal gains and losses. But even extreme highs and lows tend to be short-lived, and easily erased by another reversal of fortune. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Instinctively, you would probably think that a disaster like Hurricane Katrina could permanently alter your mood. And certainly, those who lost their homes or loved ones will probably always carry that loss with them.

Yet according to this study, people across the board, even people who lived in the areas that Katrina hit hard, had bounced back in a matter of weeks, not years. How could that be?

First, we should look at what the study means by “happiness.” Kimball's team actually uses a mathematical scale called the “happiness index.” The index is based on responses to a simple phone interview, in which the subjects were asked if any of the following statements were true for them for much of the past week:

  1. I felt happy.
  2. I felt sad.
  3. I enjoyed life.
  4. I felt depressed.

The researchers then gave each response a score of 0 to 4, with one point each for a “yes” to statements 1 and 3, and one point for a “no” to statements 2 and 4. The happiness index is the average of these scores for a particular group of people at a particular time. Using this scale as a measure of overall happiness, Kimball's team found that about three weeks after the storm, happiness in the Gulf states had returned to pre-Katrina levels.

It's worth noting that the happiness index dipped across the whole country after Katrina, not just in the affected areas. In fact, it took the nation as a whole about two weeks to recover emotionally—just a week less than the people who bore the brunt of the storm. This may seem trivial, but in fact, it's very significant; it takes something big to jostle the happiness index for more than a few days. It's also interesting that Americans' happiness could be affected almost as strongly by a major disaster overseas—suggesting we're not quite as self-centered as we might think.

We react to personal events in very much the same way. If you bomb a test, or get dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend, you might be pretty down for a few days. But chances are, it won't be very long before your mood is back to where it was before. It works the same for good news: you might be thrilled to score the winning goal in a championship soccer game, but you probably won't still be elated in the same way a few days later. It seems that our overall mood has a kind of equilibrium that we tend to return to, and that any blips in that equilibrium are usually the result of very recent events. Imagine getting dumped and scoring that winning goal on the same day: whichever one happens last is likely to set the tone for your mood tomorrow.

So, can anything permanently affect your mood? The answer is yes; studies show that seemingly basic things like getting enough sleep, spending more time with friends and family, exercise, and eating healthfully, for example, can have a lasting effect on your happiness. Ironically, however, many of us don't do the things that might improve our mood, because we feel we don't have time. Often, that time is spent going after more immediate goals—a promotion, a good grade, extra money, and so on—which we think will make us happier, when in fact the effect of this kind of happiness is much more fleeting.

Aside from just understanding our psychology, Kimball says the happiness data are useful for measuring what people value. You might say, why not just ask them? But one thing the happiness data show is that the things that affect our mood aren't necessarily the things that would first spring to mind. Going back to the Pakistan earthquake, Kimball suggests that the fact that people were so affected by this event might suggest that there could be more political support for certain kinds of foreign aid than some politicians might believe. That's one reason why Kimball and colleagues are measuring the happiness index all the time, and correlating it to world events. By evaluating the impact of some events over others, they hope to discover what really strikes a chord with people, even when they themselves don't realize it.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is hedonic adaptation?
  2. What is the Happiness Index? How is it used to measure happiness?
  3. Do you think the Happiness Index is a useful or legitimate tool? Why or why not? What are its advantages? What are its limits?
  4. Why do you think our mood is so influenced by immediate events, and is so hard to change in the long term?
  5. Do you agree that monitoring our mood in response to world events can be a useful sociological tool? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the JUL 14, 2006 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Eggs that can run away, a slobber stress test for babies, humans' speedy emotional rebounds, an international congress of dirt, and where dinosaurs come from.

For Educators

The NY Times Learning Network's lesson Lasting Impressions: Creating Collages to Reflect Deeply Moving News Events Through Art, students explore how representing real events through visual and written forms of art offers new meaning to the events.

Also from the NY Times Learning Network, Long-Lasting Impressions: Exploring Images and Memories Associated with September 11, 2001, students evaluate how their reactions to certain images have been altered by the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent world events that followed.

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