Psychology: Time Only Heals Some Wounds

I once had a group of friends and colleagues who all lost their jobs on the same day. It had nothing to do with job performance. They were all highly accomplished and well-regarded professionals who were victims of a company downsizing. Nevertheless, they were out of work, unemployed—most of them for the first time in their professional lives. It's fair to say that, as a group, they were unhappy, and by unhappy I mean that welter of emotions ranging from damaged self-esteem to anger to depression.

It was interesting to observe this group over the year or more following this event. Most found new work, some found new careers, and still others refocused their energy on family and other pursuits. None is homeless or on welfare. Yet emotionally and mentally, they are all over the map. Most seem as happy as they were before they lost their jobs. Indeed, some actually feel that they were saved from a dysfunctional organization and are happier than ever. But others are still bitter, and it appears they may hold on to this resentment for a long time.

For many years, psychologists have been studying the way people adapt to major life events, both good and bad: marriage, divorce, winning the lottery, losing a job, disability, recovery. Most of us experience at least a few of these transitions in our lifetime, and the prevailing wisdom has been that people are amazingly adaptable. In fact, some psychologists posit a happiness "set point," much like the set point for body weight: we may feel elation and joy for a time, and we may descend into melancholy, but we inevitably settle back into emotional equilibrium, near our own natural state of well-being. The presumption is that this set point is biologically determined, perhaps in the genes.

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Think of it this way. You're out there on the African savannah, trying to scratch out a living, and something bad happens to you. Use your imagination: the hominid equivalent of getting canned or divorced. You're still fairly primitive emotionally, so you're naturally upset and instinctively want to focus all your attention on your troubles. But if you mope around, preoccupied with your anger and remorse, you're not going to notice that saber-toothed tiger crouching nearby. And the longer you stay miserable, the riskier your day-to-day existence becomes. Survival back in those days depended on being highly tuned in to even slight changes in the world. Our ancestors simply couldn't afford to indulge their hurt feelings.

Over eons, this defensive mechanism got deep-wired into our DNA. Or so the theory goes. But is this true? Does it still apply in the modern world? Or is it possible that we no longer have to be as adaptable as we once were? Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas is one of a growing number of scientists who are questioning the set-point theory of happiness. One problem with the theory, he says, is the nature of the evidence itself: While studies do fail to link happiness to things like health and income and friends, none of the research has looked at people actually experiencing big changes—and either adapting or failing to. Lucas decided to do this.

To really study cause and effect, Lucas needed to know how happy people were before, say, going through a divorce or getting fired, and at various times afterward. He found this information in two massive national studies that had been tracking people's experiences and their feelings for many years. One, a German project, had tracked almost 40,000 people for 21 years; the other, ongoing in England, had studied more than 27,000 Brits for 14 years.

When he crunched this sea of data, the results were unambiguous. As reported in the April issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, people's feelings of well-being are affected by life's stressful challenges, and healthy adaptation is not at all predictable or inevitable. Indeed, emotional equilibrium seems to depend a lot on the event. For example, people typically do adjust to marriage; after just a couple years, for better or worse; that is, most married people are just about as happy as they were when they were single.

But adaptation to other events is not so quick, nor so complete, and this is where it gets interesting. Widows and widowers do get over their grief, but it takes a full seven years for that recovery to occur. Divorce and job loss, on the other hand, seem to leave people permanently scarred.

Hold up. People get over the death of a spouse, but not a divorce? While this wouldn't seem to make sense at first, psychologists have a couple of possible explanations. Some suspect that it may in fact be easier to adapt to a one-time hit of bad luck—even if it's big, like death—than to a chronic condition. Divorce in this sense is akin to long-term illness or disability: It's a broken life, never to be repaired, with all sorts of messy reminders around all the time. It's also possible—and Lucas's findings support this—that people who get married and then divorce are significantly less happy to begin with than people who get married and stay married. In other words, divorce selects people who tend toward misery anyway.

And what about getting sacked? Shouldn't getting another job take care of that unhappiness? Apparently not. Apparently, losing a job is a lot like divorce in its emotional messiness and long-term effects on self-concept. But Lucas also found tremendous variation in how well individuals recover from modern stresses like job loss—much like my downsized friends. It's not known exactly how people cope with life stress. It may be that, unlike our hominid forebears, we cannot rely entirely on our basic physiology and genetics to get us back on keel. Instead, when modern life comes at us hard, we require psychological tools to talk ourselves out of our distress. Either we reframe our thinking, adjust our goals and expectations—or we remain stuck in our unhappiness.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog.