Happiness adjusts


Jason Collins


May 17, 2011

Robert Frank has written a piece for the New York Times on why worrying is good. He writes of the well-known phenomena that after large life changes, people’s level of happiness tends to drift back to where it was before the event. Humans are also particularly bad at predicting this effect, placing far more importance on events before they occur than the later effect on happiness would warrant.

The point of Frank’s post is how much sense this makes from an evolutionary perspective. It is the miscalculation of how happy we will be if, say, we get the new job, that leads us to strive to achieve it. As Frank states:

The human brain was formed by relentless competition in the natural world, so it should be no surprise that we adapt quickly to changes in circumstances. Much of life, after all, is graded on the curve. Someone who remained permanently elated about her first promotion, for example, might find it hard to muster the drive to compete for her next one.

Emotional pain is fleeting, too. Behavioral economists often note that while people who become physically paralyzed experience the expected emotional devastation immediately after their accidents, they generally bounce back surprisingly quickly. Within six months, many have a daily mix of moods similar to their pre-accident experience.

Frank does temper the observation that large events do not change our long-term mix of emotions by noting that people can still feel regret for things that did not work out.

The reset of the level of happiness after major events presents an interesting problem for attempts to measure happiness in society. It will tend to flatten any relationship between success and happiness, with the strongest relationship being found immediately after a successful event. As humans have not evolved to be happy, and being unhappy could lead to greater success, I’ve always found this to be a gap in any studies of happiness.

One of the things I like about Frank’s writing is that when he writes of evolution, he recognises that these evolutionary drivers are individual drivers and not for the benefit of society. At the end of the article, Frank notes that people are in competition for jobs and resources, and as income grows, the acceptable level of income rises, leading to further competition for higher paying jobs. From a societal perspective, the competition driven by peoples’ worrying might be a significant waste of resources. As a result, if economists want to develop arguments that the market often delivers the best results for society (as I usually do), evolutionary theory provides a counterpoint that we should not ignore.