Happiness set points

Happiness research indicates that about half of how happy we are is genetic.  We seem to have a “happiness set point“, rather like a thermostat, that keeps bringing us back to a similar level of happiness regardless of our circumstances.  There’s some evidence that after a paralyzing spinal cord injury, for instance, people are initially very sad but later feel better.  (The evidence on this is mixed, though.  And some events, like being widowed, really do just make your life worse.)

At my job, I assess the mental health of people who are coming to jail for the first time.  And the amazing thing is that some people are fine.  Not that they’re happy – they’re still anxious to talk to their lawyers, talk to their families, and get out as soon as possible – but they’re not falling apart.  Some of this we would call “resilience”, which is more like the ability to go back to your set point after a negative event.  

This is especially noticeable in the immigration detainees, who were mostly arrested out of the blue.  One minute they were going home from work, and the next they were in handcuffs.  There’s a striking difference between the raging, sobbing person and the person who gives a wry smile and says, “Well, you know, I’m hanging in there.  What can you do?”



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