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Coping mechanisms

Some life events, such as a loss of a loved one, can affect one's life for years. I too had such experience when me and my wife decided on a divorce, which is why I wanted to write about coping mechanism and how the brain handles these situations and eventually helps us get over them. In both psychology and economy the importance of two fundamental human motives are often emphasized. These motives are the desire to reduce uncertainty and the desire to obtain pleasure.

Happiness is like food, in that we can have too much or too little of it. Food is essential to keep us alive, but even eating disrupts and affects many vital homeostatic processes in our body.The effects of these disruptions are then minimized by other bodily processes, for example the secretion of insulin to lower blood sugar. It has been theorized that happiness in humans is a homeostatic system as well, where different triggers try to maintain a 'healthy' level of happiness. If we're too happy, our brain tries to balance out our mood and get back to the baseline level of happiness.

Fortunately the same system works with sadness. Our brain is built so that the effects of negative life events wear off fairly quickly (even though most people feel otherwise!) and our emotional reactions are fairly short-lived, even with big life-changing events such as mine. In the field or psychology, this phenomenon is called the 'emotional evanescence'.

There are two major life events that have received a lot of attention from researchers studying happiness: the death of a loved one and winning the lottery. A study by Wortman et al. (1993) concluded that 82 percent of spouses were doing well after two years the death. Winning the lottery doesn't necessarily make us happier - there is some evidence that winning a huge sum of money can make us less happy (Kaplan 1978). Both of these examples are at the very extreme end of a huge spectrum of life events that affect our life and emotions, which supports the idea the recovery from smaller events (such as a breakup) can be much faster than first anticipated. In psychology, this is called the 'durability bias'. This bias has been detected in both positive and negative life events (Wilson et al. 2000).

Then why are our reactions so short-lived? For this, there are several explanations, for example that

  • happiness is a dispositional trait rather than a reaction to external events
  • people adapt to experiences and the emotional response becomes a new baseline for such experiences
  • happiness is results more from the pursuit of the goal than attaining it
  • our immune system levels our emotions to baseline to increase our changes of our survival

None of these can fully explain the emotional evanescence that people experience. Wilson et al. (2003) suggest that the main reason for people reducing the emotional power of life events by making sense of them, by making them more ordinary. When we feel a novel experience, our brain immediately tries to make it more predictable and explainable. Turning the extraordinary into ordinary, we remove the emotional power that events hold. This could be an evolved trait that helps us recover from shocking events which then increase our changes of survival in the wild.

Sometimes an event that seems uncertain in prospect often seems more inevitable in retrospect. This is the sense making process in action and is a great example of the hindsight bias. One explanation for this is that as soon as an event occurs, people start explaining the reason for it. We want to explain these things to ourselves and put them in a meaningful order, which makes the event seem more predictable, but in addition to this the event also loses some of its emotional power. Those events that are novel and new to us hold more emotional power than those which we have experienced before. Therefore the hindsight bias removes some of the hedonic power of the experience.

To summarize, the human brain has a very effective self-regulatory, unconsciously activated system which helps to cope with different positive and negative life-events. We tend to explain these events to ourselves, making them more ordinary and understandable and therefore make them 'fit' in our life stories. These systems were probably developed to avoid constant feelings of happiness of sadness, as they tend to put our bodies on 'overdrive'.

In the end, everything will be okay.