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Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007; Page A09

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.

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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.


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