Happiness Tolerance

October 2nd, 2007at 10:33pm Posted by Eli

Interesting story in yesterday’s WaPo:

[A] study published this week [describes] a paradox involving happiness. Americans report being generally happier than people from, say, Japan or Korea, but it turns out that, partly as a result, they are less likely to feel good when positive things happen and more likely to feel bad when negative things befall them.

Put another way, a hidden price of being happier on average is that you put your short-term contentment at risk, because being happy raises your expectations about being happy. When good things happen, they don’t count for much because they are what you expect. When bad things happen, you temporarily feel terrible, because you’ve gotten used to being happy.

“I have some friends who are very well off and have great lives,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside. “If you ask them, they will say, ‘I am very happy,’ but the most minor negative events will make them unhappy. If they are traveling first class, they get upset if they have to wait in line. They live in a mansion, but a little noise from their neighbors infuriates them, because their expectations are so high. Their overall happiness is high, but they have a lot of daily annoyances.”

[Harry] Lewenstein is the kind of person who can teach people a thing or two about contentment. All his life, he said in an interview, he has been satisfied with what he had. When he had a small car, he liked it. When he upgraded to a convertible, he felt swell. He never spent time thinking about the nicer convertible his neighbor was driving.


[A]ccording to the new study, led by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, people who report a large ratio of positive to negative events also seem to derive diminishing returns from additional happy events — and ever larger adverse effects when they encounter negative events.

By contrast, Oishi found that even though Japanese people were less happy overall than Americans, they needed only one positive event to regain their equilibrium after experiencing a negative event. European Americans needed two positive events on average to regain their emotional footing.

Oishi’s research also provides an intriguing window into why very few people are very happy most of the time. Getting to “very happy” is like climbing an ever steeper mountain. Additional effort — positive events — doesn’t gain you much by way of altitude. Slipping backward, on the other hand, is very easy.

So… basically, you build up a tolerance for happiness, like it’s an addiction. I also liked how Harry Lewenstein was happy with his car because he just didn’t care what kind of car anyone else was driving. I think that attitude is a big help, because there’s always going to be someone who has something better.

Entry Filed under: Science

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