A couple of weeks ago I published a post in which I suggested that there were a number of enduring myths in positive psychology. My intention, at that time, was to shine light on a problem in a nascent field related to the way that research findings get “watered down” as they make their way from academic publications through popular books and other media and finally to the lay public. In that original post I also made the case that there are many excellent researchers in positive psychology as well as a number of robust findings. It was my hope that readers would sit up and take notice and, perhaps, set the bar higher for reading and understanding the research related to positive psychology. Readers did, in fact, take notice. They accused me of spreading myths myself, of not understanding science, and of similar professional wrong-doing.
As a result I return this week to just a single example of a myth in positive psychology: the “fact” that people with disability quickly and completely adapt back to their pre-accident levels of happiness. There is good reason to want to believe this finding is true: it is a hopeful message that appears to honor the dignity of a particularly marginalized group of people. It is a message that stands as testament to the strength of the human spirit. The only problem is, this idea is not exactly what the research points to. Let’s take a closer look.
Where this idea came from
In 1978 three pioneering scientists published a landmark article on psychological adaptation. Using two overlooked samples-accident victims and lottery winners-they examined how people adjust to new circumstances. In this study they interviewed a number of accident victims within a year of their trauma. Here is how the authors summarize their finding in their abstract, “Paraplegics also demonstrated a contrast effect, not by enhancing minor pleasures but by idealizing their past, which did not help their present happiness.” If you read the article itself the authors describe the impact of the accident in the following way: “The life changes faced by the victims were severe and clearly evident. These formerly independent individuals now found themselves in a state near physical helplessness, in wheelchair or beds, with their days at the rehabilitation center filled with therapy sessions.”
So how did this get turned into the idea that accident victims bounce back? The answer might, in part, lie in a table on page 921. In this Table the authors report the remembered past happiness, current happiness, and predicted future happiness (“how happy do you think you will be in a couple years?”) of lottery winners, accident victims and a control group. Here is what it looked like:
This table is striking, and easy to mis-interpret if you think this is a longitudinal study in which “future happiness” actually represents real happiness at follow-up. Unfortunately, it does not.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this myth is that it is widely known and discussed within academic circles but not among lay people. Ed Diener has published two articles in which he argues that there are a number of enduring myths related to happiness studies and specifically points out the adaptation to disability as one of them.
Even more compelling is more recent research by Rich Lucas and others. Using the nationally representative and longitudinal German SocioEconomic Panel data Lucas was able to analyze the happiness of people before during and after their disability. He found that disability was difficult for people, that full adaptation did not occur and that severity of disability further predicted hardship in adapting.
George Loewenstein has conducted studies that further unpack this phenomenon by looking at the ways in which people use information to make happiness judgments. In one study, for instance, he and his colleagues asked more than 800 healthy people to make predictions about how they might adapt to an amputation or other disability. He found that getting them to focus on how they would deal with specifics situations did not have an effect on their perceived adjustment. On the other hand, when he and his colleagues asked them to reflect on adaptation the respondents suddenly predicted a higher quality of life following their hypothetical disability. In a second study he and his colleagues found that having a temporary disability was more difficult to adapt to than a permanent one.
My intention is not to disparage people with disabilities or to suggest that they cannot be happy or have a high quality of life. Of course they can. Rather, it is my aim to trace a single instance of a research finding that has been misinterpreted and found its way into the popular imagination and how enduring is the belief that this finding is true.