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Study on twins suggests most people return to their normal happiness level after trauma

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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.”

  • Lisa Taylor

    Misleading article title as author notes the major weaknesses of the study. I was physically and emotionally abused and neglected as a child. 5+ years of weekly therapy (2010-14) and powerful antidepressant and anxiety meds, though certainly helpful (the meds, for a few years but now don’t help; in the process of weaning off them; difficult), hasn’t rid me of the traumatic memories and the frustrating and useless bouts of anger and irrational behavior (verbally lashing out at abuser).

    I’m reading a book that’s making a lot of sense to me, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. I should add that since childhood I have developed several auto-immune disorders–ezcema, allergies, hyper- and hypothyroidism, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, as well as being diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Chronic Suicidal Ideation. What all of these illnesses have in common? Chronic inflammation as a major cause. And what’s a major cause of chronic inflammation? Chronic stress, something I’ve lived with my entire life.

    Do I think my childhood trauma is behind these health issues? Yes. I suffer from PTSD, not the mental disorders listed above. And the very activities I’ve been drawn to from childhood to now–acting, writing, dance, yoga, meditation, a vegan lifestyle (before drug weaning I doubled my dark, leafy greens intake after reading about certain foods positive effect on mood and mine vastly improved within 24 hours which means the drugs had me baseline functioning in life)–all of which made me flourish and played a part in the happiest times of my life, were and continue to be looked down upon by already unsupportive family members.

    I’m not eschewing all Western medicine but I’ve grown wary of what are now called “psychopharmacologists,” shrinks who write scripts for powerful, dangerous (in regards to side effects on them and through weaning process), ineffective drugs to millions of people, many of whom have suffered trauma that don’t heal through mainstream APA methods (that make the APA and BigPharma very wealthy, coincidentally). I highly recommend Van Der Kolk’s book for anyone who’s suffered trauma and struggling to maintain a semblance of healthy living.