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Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Researchers had found that people need a certain ratio of positive to negative events to be happy -- couples, for example, seem to need about three times as many positive interactions with each other as negative interactions to feel satisfied with the relationship. A variety of therapists have focused on trying to increase the ratio of positive to negative events in their clients' lives.

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But according to the new study, led by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, people who report a large ratio of positive to negative events also seem to derive diminishing returns from additional happy events -- and ever larger adverse effects when they encounter negative events.

By contrast, Oishi found that even though Japanese people were less happy overall than Americans, they needed only one positive event to regain their equilibrium after experiencing a negative event. European Americans needed two positive events on average to regain their emotional footing.

Oishi's research also provides an intriguing window into why very few people are very happy most of the time. Getting to "very happy" is like climbing an ever steeper mountain. Additional effort -- positive events -- doesn't gain you much by way of altitude. Slipping backward, on the other hand, is very easy.

"Positive events in our intimate relationships lose their force over time; consider for example, the fifth time you kissed your partner versus the most recent time," said Thomas Bradbury, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "A preponderance of positive events in a relationship might somehow be beneficial to one's global happiness but detrimental to one's mood or daily happiness, in the sense that having high expectations for positive events reduces the impact of each new one."

People and couples who start out the happiest, Bradbury said, might be most vulnerable, both because it is much easier for them to slide back down the mountain than to go further up, and because being euphoric at the outset raises their expectations that they will always be happy. Actually, when you start out very happy, you have to run pretty hard just to stay where you are.

The psychologists are studying ways to help people retain their sensitivity to positive experiences. Individuals and couples who attend to everyday accomplishments, celebrate the positive and cultivate a sense of gratitude for what they have seem to have the best odds of getting off the happiness treadmill.

Or, in other words, they let some of that Harry Lewenstein magic rub off on them.


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