Can people really adapt to intense experiences and return to the way they were? Or do those experiences permanently affect their well-being?
This is the question scientists sought to answer in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
The researchers used a twin study to analyze the emotional well-being of participants after major life stressors. Emotional well-being is “the emotional quality of everyday experiences, the positive and negative affect that makes one’s life pleasant or unpleasant,” according to Violeta Misheva, corresponding author.
Misheva was interested in testing the adaptation hypothesis—in other words, can people adapt to intense emotional experiences (both positive and negative) and return to their original level of life satisfaction?
Scientists collected data from 5530 pairs of twins, both fraternal and identical, and asked participants about their overall life satisfaction. 86 percent of respondents rated their lives as “good” or “excellent,” while 14 percent chose “fair” or “poor.”
Twin studies “help to dispel the possibility that happiness is genetically determined,” effectively bypassing the nature-nurture debate.
Respondents were also asked about major traumas they may have experienced—examples included child abuse, neglect, jail time, major accidents, assault, rape, kidnapping and witnessing an assault or murder. They were asked twice to focus on things that happened within the last year and the last three years, respectively.
“If it is indeed the case that humans do adapt to their circumstances, then we expect to find a stronger effect of more recent events,” said Misheva.
Of the respondents who reported trauma, 41 percent reported physical abuse; 11 percent reported sexual abuse; 19 percent reported being involved in an accident; 23 percent reported witnessing a serious injury or murder, 10 percent reported assault, and five percent reported rape.
As predicted, major events—both traumas and positive events such as marriage—had a much more significant impact on the emotional well-being of respondents if they occurred within the last year.
A major limitation of the study is that it used a single self-report question to determine emotional well-being. Scientists have yet to pin down an all-inclusive measurement for this quality.
“No consensus exists in social science…about the best and most complete definition of well-being,” Misheva remarked.
Nevertheless, the data show that the adaptation theory holds up, at least in this case.
Future studies may include better measures for well-being and more specific information about traumatic experiences in order to formulate a better plan for helping victims.
“Victims of different traumatic experiences should be assisted in order to recover more quickly from their ordeals,” said Misheva. “All of these policies could contribute to a happier society.”