Some people are surprised that I am as cheerful as I am. They expect me to be miserable all the time because I am disabled. They believe that if they were in my position they would not be able to cope. This belief is false, and in this post I will try to explain why.
I’ve been reading a book called The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, where in one chapter he talks about something called the “Adaptation Principle”.
The Adaptation Principle, in a nutshell, refers to how we adapt to external circumstances which may initially either positively or negatively affect our happiness.
We each have a baseline level of happiness determined by our genes, which accounts for 50% of our happiness according to researchers. Some people are naturally optimists and some people are pessimists. This Genetic “set point” of happiness is affected by external events which could temporarily increase or decrease our happiness. However these external events only account for 10% of our happiness. No matter what happens to us in the long run, either good or bad, we will adapt to it and our happiness will return to our baseline level. The remaining 40% of our happiness is determined by what we choose to do, such as our hobbies or our social life.
I’ll give you an example.
Imagine if you won the lottery. You would probably feel elated initially. You would probably buy a new house or a new flash car. You start living it up and start doing all the things you ever dreamt of. The contrast between your old life, where you were struggling to pay the bills, and your new life where your money troubles are over, is stark, and you get a kick out of the difference.
However, within a year you will probably be getting used to your new life. You will start taking things for granted. It becomes the new normal, and it doesn’t feel that different any more. The initial spike in happiness caused by winning the lottery will probably decrease and return to your baseline level that it was at before you won the lottery. Having more money does not necessarily make you any happier.
According to Haidt the brain is more sensitive to sudden changes in circumstances, such as winning the lottery. So we get a rush of dopamine when something unexpected and pleasurable happens. But after a while the novelty wears off, and we adapt to it. This is called Hedonic Adaptation.
Now, this is the interesting bit. Someone who experiences a catastrophically negative life change will experience the SAME EFFECT.
Imagine you had a car crash and suddenly became paralysed one day. Initially you will be very upset. Your life is turned upside down. All your aims in life will need to be re-evaluated. You may be asking yourself “Why Me?”
But just like with winning the lottery, you will adapt to your new situation. Initially your happiness takes a massive hit, but eventually it will rise back up to the baseline level that it was at before your injury. Rehabilitation will help you to learn that life does not end when you become disabled. You can still live an active and fulfilling life, just a little differently to before. You make new goals for your new circumstances in life, and it’s rewarding when you make progress towards those goals.
Haidt says that both the lottery winner’s and the quadriplegic’s happiness will return to baseline levels within a year as they adapt to their new circumstances.
I have first-hand experience of the adaptation principle, so what Haidt said resonates with me. I became disabled when I was six after a car crash. But within a year I was back at the same school, with the same friends, doing the same things as before, albeit in a wheelchair and I needed a carer. However I did not feel any less happy than I was before the crash. I was not depressed and I did not wallow in misery. I just got on with it and adapted to my new circumstances. It did not change who I was as a person.
This is why it doesn’t make sense when able-bodied people say “Oh if I was disabled I wouldn’t be able to cope”. Yes you would! You would adapt to it just like I have. I’m not saying it will be easy. It’s not. But over time you will learn to come to terms with your new situation and you will realise that disabled people can be just as happy as the able-bodied. Humans are an incredibly adaptive species and just because something traumatic has changed your life it does not necessarily mean that it will be for the worse.
Of course it’s not just genes that affect our happiness. Our social lives or the activities we engage in are responsible for 40% of our happiness. Disabled people can engage in as many meaningful activities and have just as active (if not more so) social lives as able-bodied people. So there is no reason to believe that disabled people must be more unhappy than able-bodied people. That is just a misconception.
So remember that what happens to you only plays a small part in how happy you are. 40% of your happiness is determined by what you choose to do with your time, so spend it wisely.