Do negative emotions last longer than positive emotions?

Ronald Siegel
Some classic studies have documented how quickly people adapt to both negative and positive circumstances. Lottery winners, a year later, are no happier than a control group of people who didn't win. People who were paralyzed in accidents are not as unhappy as you might expect; they rate their pleasure in everyday activities as high as the lottery winners! After relationship breakups and other discouraging events, people generally aren't as upset as they expected to be, and they recover sooner than they would have predicted.

Still, people adapt differently to negative and positive events. In long-term studies in Germany, getting married initially boosted happiness, but two years later people had returned to their usual level of satisfaction. Certain negative changes (divorce, death of a spouse, or unemployment) led to more enduring declines in satisfaction, and even years later people had not totally recovered. In studies of more ordinary negative circumstances (a typical "bad" or "good" day rather than a life-changing event), feeling lousy one day tended to carry over into the next, but the positive feelings after a good day did not.

Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside believes that the evidence to date (which has focused far more on negative than positive experiences) indicates people adapt more quickly and more completely to positive changes—such as becoming accustomed to having more money after winning the lottery. This adaptation, she believes, forms a significant barrier to achieving long-lasting happiness.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.