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Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Ten years ago, Harry Lewenstein was riding a bike down a hill in southern Portugal when he hit a bump without warning. The 70-year-old retired electronics executive was going fast, and the shock propelled him clear over the handlebars.

When his wife and friends rushed up, they found him flat on his back. Sensing that he might have spinal cord damage, one friend poked his foot with a sharp object, and then slowly moved up his body. Lewenstein felt nothing until his friend poked his upper chest.

Back at his home in California, it became clear that the injury had permanently deprived Lewenstein of all control over his legs. He had limited use of his arms but could not pick anything up with his hands. His fingers were rigidly curled.

Now 80, Lewenstein has outlived many predictions of his death, but that is not the most remarkable thing about him: He has spent no time, he says, feeling sorry for himself or regretting the accident. He knows he was riding the bike faster than he should have. And each day, he discovers new ways to be resourceful with what he does have -- and new reasons to feel grateful.

"Some people feel sorry for themselves or mad at the world," he said. "I did not . . . after I was injured, I was so totally incapacitated and so much out of everything that every day turned out to be a positive day. Each day, I recovered a little more of my memory, of my ability to comprehend things."

Lewenstein's story is especially instructive in light of a study published this week about a paradox involving happiness. Americans report being generally happier than people from, say, Japan or Korea, but it turns out that, partly as a result, they are less likely to feel good when positive things happen and more likely to feel bad when negative things befall them.

Put another way, a hidden price of being happier on average is that you put your short-term contentment at risk, because being happy raises your expectations about being happy. When good things happen, they don't count for much because they are what you expect. When bad things happen, you temporarily feel terrible, because you've gotten used to being happy.

"I have some friends who are very well off and have great lives," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside. "If you ask them, they will say, 'I am very happy,' but the most minor negative events will make them unhappy. If they are traveling first class, they get upset if they have to wait in line. They live in a mansion, but a little noise from their neighbors infuriates them, because their expectations are so high. Their overall happiness is high, but they have a lot of daily annoyances."

Lewenstein is the kind of person who can teach people a thing or two about contentment. All his life, he said in an interview, he has been satisfied with what he had. When he had a small car, he liked it. When he upgraded to a convertible, he felt swell. He never spent time thinking about the nicer convertible his neighbor was driving.

"This ability to accept where I was and what I was, was very important after the accident because I was able to accept the fact I was not going to be able to do a lot of things," he said. Asked whether he had regrets about going to Portugal, he said, "None whatsoever."

"I accept the fact, I do not resent it, that I spend my time in bed or in a wheelchair," he said. "I don't think of myself as being heroic."

The study, in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offers a new twist on an old idea. Previously, psychologists such as marriage expert John Gottman said that people's day-to-day satisfaction, whether with themselves or with their intimate relationships, was the sum of the positive and negative things that happened each day.

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.

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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