Greek philosophers warned that excessive materialism or the quest for physical pleasure can thwart true happiness. Contemporary psychology and economics scholars who study the phenomenon of happiness conclude different theories about the subject. Psychology’s set-point theorists debate whether or not life events influence happiness. They believe happiness is established largely by genetics and personality. Major events, such as marriage, job loss, or serious health challenges, may move a person away from the set point, but most life events have no lasting effect on happiness.
Others believe life-cycle events can create some permanent change, either positive or negative, in one’s level of happiness. For example, marital status appears to directly affect happiness such that married persons report higher levels of happiness than those not presently nor ever married. Conversely, major health changes lead to a decline in happiness and well-being. Other generalizations about life-cycle patterns suggest one is happier with more education, reasonable financial means, and good health.Conventional wisdom suggests improvements in material conditions—especially growth in income—lead to a lasting effect on happiness and overall well-being. Economist Richard Easterlin contradicted the notion that income and well-being are linked, proposing that life’s events provide fluctuations in happiness. His work suggests events across the life span create the need for adaptation, along with the general belief that no matter how good things get, one’s level of happiness doesn’t change appreciably.
“Happiness” scholars have shown that people adapt rapidly to good news, but that after a short time, their mood and sense of well-being revert to what they were before. Called hedonic adaptation, this phenomenon explains the complete adaptation of an individual’s state of well-being. U.S. wealth provides a striking example. A recent study found that the average American’s wealth tripled in the last half-century—yet happiness rates haven’t changed. As material aspirations typically change with increased wealth, expectations rise, and ultimately, happiness or well-being remains unchanged. This is the case with technology, too. We want newer, better, cheaper, faster. And when we get it, we take it for granted. We perpetuate the paradox of progress. That same technology we love, that keeps us connected, transports us faster, and speeds up work, also creates unexpected malfunctions, stress, traffic jams and delays; it invades our lives 24/7 and makes us impatient. So we’re no happier with the technological revolution than we were with the Industrial Revolution.
People tend to rate happiness higher in the moment, lower in retrospect. What most fail to realize is that over time, neither increased economic achievement nor the “good life” increases their happiness. Well-being does increase when one feels good and is able to fulfill goals. While a decline in life circumstances may decrease well-being, such factors as friendships, employment status, and education can increase happiness. Life events, together with personality, shape our determination of happiness.
Self-reported happiness hasn’t really changed in 50 years. We chase an illusion that social action or new economic policy will make us happier. Ultimately, what really makes us happier are positive relationships with family and friends, pets, exchanging love, and finding meaning in our daily efforts (work, religion, hobbies, service).
If we subscribe to the set point-theory sprinkled with some life-cycle events, we realize that the “happiness” level of our colleagues will fluctuate somewhat—but alas, happiness will stay relatively unchanged. Some nurses and others in health care see economic gain as their primary goal in life; for them, hedonic adaptation will prevent a rise in true happiness. You won’t be able to convince them that more isn’t better. Understanding this adaptation can help us understand the behavior of those people whose actions convey the attitude, “What have you done for me lately?”
Nurses have an advantage: Every day, we’re in a position to do meaningful work. Perhaps we should turn our attention to influencing high-relationship environments that underscore effective team work and peer support. We can buffer one another when life events are unfavorable. We can protect and preserve our health and the health of others. We can express love and caring for others through acts of kindness and professionalism. We can be responsible for elevating our own happiness—and it won’t cost a dime.