It takes around four years to return to our “pre-shock wellbeing” level after a traumatic life event, research suggests.
Economists from the University of Technology Sydney looked at how 18 major incidences affected 14,000 people between 2002 and 2016.
They found the death of a child or partner, romantic separation and health scare all caused a “deep plunge” to the participants’ emotional wellbeing.
On average it took around four years for their mental health to return to its “pre-shock” level.
“The life events that saw the deepest plunge in wellbeing were the death of a partner or child, separation, a large financial loss or a health shock,” said lead author Dr Nathan Kettlewell.
“But even for these negative experiences, on average people recovered to their pre-shock level of wellbeing by around four years.
“While chasing after happiness may be misplaced, the results suggest the best chances for enhancing wellbeing may lie in protecting against negative shocks, for example by establishing strong relationships, investing in good health and managing financial risks.
“And we can take consolation from the fact that, although it takes time, wellbeing can recover from even the worst circumstances.”
The results – published in the journal SSM-Population Health – support the theory of hedonic adaptation; that humans tend to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major life changes.
Studies have suggested, however, this is not always the case or it can take many years.
The Australian team set out to better understand how major events affect life satisfaction and how long the impact lasts.
Data was taken from the HILDA survey, which gathered information on the social, health and economic conditions of households via face-to-face interviews and questionnaires.
“Marriage, childbirth and a major financial gain produced the greatest elevation to wellbeing, however, they did not lead to long-lasting happiness; the positive effect generally wore off after two years,” said Dr Kettlewell.
“However, there was also an anticipatory effect for marriage and childbirth, with wellbeing increasing prior to these events.”
Perhaps surprisingly, moving house, being fired or having a promotion had little impact on wellbeing.
Pregnancy and childbirth boosted life satisfaction within the first year, but the new mother’s happiness generally declined.
Marriage and retirement were found to also improve life satisfaction, but had close to no impact on a person’s joy.
The economists hope understanding how life events impact wellbeing will enable governments and policy makers to better target resources that improve happiness and welfare.
“A growing number of countries – including the UK, Iceland and New Zealand, as well as the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] – are measuring wellbeing, alongside economic growth, as a way to gauge success in improving the lives of citizens,” said Dr Kettlewell.
“Information on wellbeing also helps clinicians and healthcare professionals better understand the repercussions of major life crises such as the death of a loved one, a health shock or job loss.”