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Adaptive Happiness

July 12, 2006

It may seem obvious that good fortune or tragedy would have lasting effects on our overall happiness. But what’s obvious is not always correct.


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.

MILES KIMBALL (University of Michigan):
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.