Feeling down? Stressed? Unable to handle the pandemic for one more minute? How a surprising, decades old study can help you find happiness again

This past year has been tough. Life under a cloud of disease and lockdowns has pushed us to the limit.

We were all thrust into a “new normal” with no warning. You may be worrying about what the future holds. Feeling lonely in your isolation from friends and family. Sad or depressed.

Even with hope on the horizon, there’s still plenty of uncertainty. As much as we want to go back to how things were before, it may not be so simple.

How do you handle this? Is it possible to be happy despite all we’re facing?

As it turns out, a group of researchers way back in 1978 made a discovery that we can look to now for guidance.

What science teaches us about fortune…and misfortune

The researchers in question posed a question no one had thought of asking before. It was simple and powerful. Were lottery winners happier, on the whole, than people who had recently become paralyzed by an accident?

It seems like the answer should be clear. Who wouldn’t want to win the lottery? We all want wealth. Being paralyzed, meanwhile, sounds terrible to most able-bodied people.

For the lottery group, the researchers chose people who had won a lot of money—a million dollars or more.

The result? Lottery winners weren’t any happier on average than the control group of people who hadn’t won anything.

And here’s the even more surprising part. The paraplegics and quadriplegics weren’t that much less happy than the other two groups. In fact, most of them reported feeling happy a lot of the time.

How could this be?

The experimenters came up with a theory about why they found what they did. This answer is again simple yet powerful.

People get used to things.

That’s why at first, buying a shiny new car makes you happy. But after a few weeks, you’re used to the car. It doesn’t lift your spirits anymore. You either get some other new thing, or you end up feeling less happy. (Advertisers play on this human tendency all the time—dangling the latest shiny new object in front of us.)

By the same token, if something bad happens, you get used to the way life is, at least after some period of time. The result? Small pleasures make you happier than they used to.

So if you were in an accident, you get an extra dose of happiness that wasn’t there before. On the flip side, if you win a lot of money, you get accustomed to being rich. You’re then less likely to find happiness in small things.

Since that discovery, the field of happiness studies has exploded. Lottery winners have been researched many times. The results are always about the same. On a day to day level, they’re no happier than they were before. The only difference is they feel a basic satisfaction with life that comes with financial stability.

What about accident victims? As one of those, I can confirm that the original researchers had it right. They were looking at people who were paralyzed rather than those with chronic pain and illness. Yet, much of what they came up with is true of my life as well.

I have a greater appreciation for the little things than before. My morning cup of tea. The light coming in through the bedroom window as I sit and write. My cats. The touch of my husband’s hand as we walk together.

At the beginning, I was miserable. I couldn’t imagine myself ever being happy again unless I recovered completely. I yearned for my old life. The one where I could do anything I wanted, and didn’t have to depend on others for my care.

And this, it turns out, is the dividing line. People who compare their old lives before the accident or other bad event are less happy than those who let it go.

If we accept our fate, and move on with the cards we’ve been dealt, we get those happiness bennies. If we don’t, we end up miserable. Most disabled people do manage it after some period of time.

Multiple studies have confirmed this. They’ve found that people who have been disabled for an extended period rate their quality of life as the same or better than those who aren’t disabled.

Tapping into the science of happiness

It’s tempting to believe that our lives would improve if the stressors or other life challenges would go away. But science tells us that our level of happiness tends to go back to its “set” point no matter whether something good or bad happens to us.

Here are the lessons that happiness studies teach us:

  1. Happiness comes from acceptance
  2. The little things of daily life bring us more happiness than the big things
  3. We get used to how things are—and that can make us less happy after “good” stuff and happier after “bad” stuff.
  4. We all return to our happiness “set” point after major events like a big raise, accident or even a global pandemic.

Can you make yourself happier?

The holy grail of happiness is to raise your “set” point so you’re happier more of the time. Is this possible? If so, how do you go about doing it?

Here are a few suggestions from the world of happiness studies:

Practice kindness. Not only does it feel good to help others, but it reminds you that there are people who are less fortunate than yourself. Multiple studies have found the same thing: people who perform acts of kindness are happier than those who don’t. Not easy when you’re going through your own difficulties. But the acts of kindness don’t have to be big. They can be as small as sending kind thoughts out into the world from your sickbed. I do that when I’m unable to do anything more—even at times when I’m in terrible pain. It works.

Play tennis with your mind. If you’re feeling down about something, come up with a thought that opposes it. For example, if you’re feeling like it’s painful not to be able to see your family, remind yourself of how much it means to you that they’re in your life.

Lay off the judgments. We tend to divide up the world into “good” and “bad.” Even worse, most of us focus on the stuff we see as “bad.” None of this is good for happiness. Pay attention to when you do this. Then remove the labels from your mind. Even a blanket labeling of the pandemic as “bad” means you’re not reminding yourself of the many beautiful things that have come out of it—goodwill around the world, connection with others, cleaner air, and a greater appreciation for life.

Remember that happiness comes from within. We think of happiness as something that we’re going to find “out there” in the form of money, objects or relationships. And we see catastrophic events—whether personal or on the world stage—as being terrible for us. But as the researchers found, external events aren’t what make us happy or unhappy. Just by being aware of that, we’re more able to raise our happiness level. We can choose to be happy anytime—even when we’re scared about the future.

Don’t resist. Most of us think in terms of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. It’s a deep, instinctual part of us. The problem is, life is a mixture of these two. If you try to control it, you end up feeling worse. Instead, let go and do your best to accept whatever life throws at you. It’s not easy, so see it as a process.

Take care of yourself. Meditate or do relaxing activities on a regular basis. Keep a gratitude journal. Practice self care. Do whatever you can to show yourself the kind of love you do for others, such as your spouse or children.

These may seem like small things, but they add up. They make a difference if you practice them on a regular basis. Try choosing one each week. Over time, you’ll see your happiness set point go up.

Now, more than ever, we need to learn how to do this. If we all put out this effort, we’ll feel closer to one another. That’s how happiness grows.

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

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