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How major life events impact our long-term wellbeing
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(Credit: Alamy)
Although people lead unique lives, new data says that we all experience relatively similar things – and how we feel about them is pretty consistent, too.
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Our psychological experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. For instance, imagine that your life is blighted by a pandemic trauma. You are distraught. But then you meet the love of your life. Or you land your dream job. Or you move into the perfect home. You feel both shattered and uplifted, simultaneously.

Each of these events has an effect on you – and they combine to create a complex psychological experience in which just looking at one event doesn’t tell the whole story of their impact. Still, research on the psychological impact of major events frequently focuses on singular events or categories, such as career; job loss, for example, has its own research oeuvre drilling into the granular details of how unemployment affects the psyche. But these studies don’t account for other contemporaneous life events.

Understanding this holistic impact inspired Nick Glozier, a professor of psychological medicine at the University of Sydney, to conduct a study on the emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction of 14,000 people across 16 years, as participants weathered 18 common life events: deaths, family additions and subtractions, job changes, criminal events, health problems and financial swings. For the research, Glozier’s team looked to Australia, which is home to a number of strong longitudinal datasets, including an excellent annual survey targeting diverse Australian households called the HILDA Survey.

“Our lives are full and varied, and have numerous things that go on, some of which are devastating,” says Glozier. “We were trying to assess some of that complexity.” His study presents an intriguing peek at our intricate, woven lives – and even provides clues to help us predict what’s coming down the pike, and how we’ll feel as a result.

The the biggest boosts come from marriage, childbirth and financial gain, but, for the most part, we return to a consistent baseline of wellbeing (Credit: Alamy)

The the biggest boosts come from marriage, childbirth and financial gain, but, for the most part, we return to a consistent baseline of wellbeing (Credit: Alamy)

Good news, bad news

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: in a typical Australian life, the deepest emotional craters come from deaths, marital separation and major financial losses – and these negative events hurt for much longer than positive events uplift. Participants averaged fouryears to emotionally recover from major financial losses or health shocks, and three years to recover from divorces. (Here, ‘recovery’ is defined as the time to return to prior levels of wellbeing.) One of the most frightening catastrophes, the death of a child or spouse, averages four years of recovery – but, calmingly, it occurs rarely.

Nathan Kettlewell, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, cautions that these recovery statistics are averages, and some people take longer to get back on their feet. “And these measures may not capture all of the enduring effects. It’s clear that something like that becomes part of you, and our study doesn’t suggest that that’s not the case,” he says.

One of the most frightening catastrophes, the death of a child or spouse, averages four years of recovery – but, calmingly, it occurs rarely

The data also suggests that the emotional costs of quickly moving on from something unsatisfactory – for instance, from a spouse – will be significant, and are worth avoiding unless inescapable. Kettlewell suggests proactively addressing issues when reasonable – such as preventing health problems with exercise and healthcare, evading unnecessary job loss with training or coaching and keeping healthy marriages humming with counseling and tender loving care.

The good news in all of this, however, is that for most people, these bleak events don’t occur often (the exception is health crises of loved ones, which, on average, appear every four-and-a-half years), and participants’ negative events tend to not pile up. For example, someone who was fired is unlikely to also experience a natural disaster or divorce. And strong recovery is the norm. “Most people get better,” says Glozier. “We have this terrible tendency to assume that every kind of bad thing that happens requires therapy and counseling and someone to talk to, and actually, most people just get over it. We need to concentrate our resources on the ones that don’t.”

This bodes well for pandemic-induced trauma. “People are, on average, quite resilient to these things,” says Kettlewell. “We’ll start to feel better. We’ll adapt.”

The deepest emotional craters come from deaths, marital separation and major financial losses – each of which take a few years to recover from (Credit: Alamy)

The deepest emotional craters come from deaths, marital separation and major financial losses – each of which take a few years to recover from (Credit: Alamy)

Boosts and plunges

Ask yourself how you’ve typically felt over the last decade. Is it pretty consistent? If you said yes, that sounds about right.

“People’s levels of wellbeing don’t change that much over their lives,” says Glozier. “The vast majority of people revert to their normal set points of wellbeing after a period of time – and in many cases, just a short period of time. Some people are just pretty miserable, and other people seem to sort of glide through life, even when terrible things happen to them.” The term for this is ‘hedonic adaptation’.

The data indicates that the biggest wellbeing boosts come from marriage, childbirth and financial gain, but that those sparks of happiness are fleeting; marriage provides a year-long emotional boost at most, though improves life satisfaction for three years. A retirement, pregnancy or job promotion can curl your mouth into a smile for a few months, though you’ll return to your prior baseline thereafter. You’ll also get a boost from the “anticipatory effect”, too, which are feelings in the lead up to the big event. 

Like boosts, most wellbeing plunges are temporary, too. “Many of the things that we talk about day-to-day as being highly stressful are only highly stressful for very, very short periods of time, and have little if any long-term effects,” says Glozier.

People’s levels of wellbeing don’t change that much over their lives – Nick Glozier

For example, on average, the study participants switched jobs or houses every four-and-a-half years. Moving house is nerve-wracking for three weeks, but nearly invisible in the context of a decade. And workplace changes have surprisingly small effects on wellbeing. “That was a bit of a surprise, given how much stress, anxiety and focus people have in career,” says Kettlewell. “When people lose a job, often they get a new one pretty quickly.”

One day at a time

If you take home one thing from the study, it’s that you can officially stop chasing happiness.

Marriage, financial gain, retirement and childbirth might make you perceive your life as more satisfying, but none will make you actually feelsparkly over the long term. You are better served by enjoying positive events as they arise, and otherwise pursuing the values that sing to your particular soul.

As the study authors wrote, “hoping for happiness from positive events appears misplaced. Life, it turns out, is a pleasant hike on a flat course, not a roller coaster.

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