For the most part, we have a consistent sense of well-being. It’s our baseline. The degree to which we are satisfied with our lives is mostly stable, and even major changes like a broken heart or winning the lottery will only change that temporarily. Or at least, that’s what the “hedonic treadmill theory” suggests: we inevitably always return to the same baseline of life satisfaction. We do see peaks and dips, but we eventually stabilize. We adapt. We don’t stay in a peak or a dip forever.
Previous researchers, Headey and Wearing (1989), found that in general people have positive baseline moods. After a major life change, we return to “differing baselines” based on our personalities. Happy people tend to experience more happy events. Unhappy people experience more negative events. The events we experience and our personalities, affect the baseline we create/return to. So Lucas et al. (2003) set out to see if in fact we do create a new baseline or if we return to a pre-existing one.
To study this, they composed a longitudinal study of thousands of random people in Germany in order to measure their levels of life satisfaction before and after marriage. They began to collect this data long before the participants knew they would be getting married, though not all participants actually ended up getting married. Marriage is associated with positive levels of subjective well-being, which is partially measured by life satisfaction. There are a wealth of benefits to getting married, but also an abundance of stress to losing a marriage. When marriage events happen (weddings, divorce, becoming widowed) they can change our overall life satisfaction quite a bit. So do we adapt to these changes and return to the same level of life satisfaction we had before, or does it stay higher or lower?
These researchers found that your long-term baseline after getting married depends on how you initially react to the marriage. Those that react positively create a baseline of a more satisfying life and well-being for years to come. Those that react negatively to a marriage (it is after all quite stressful and can put a lot of pressure on you) create a lower baseline than they did before getting married.
So, no, not everyone adapts to marriage by going back to their baseline before marriage. Some continue to increase in life satisfaction, some increase and then create a baseline somewhere in the middle of where they used to be and where they were immediately after marriage, and others are significantly less satisfied with life. Taking an average line of these will make it seem like adaption does occur, and that marriage is simply a blip on our baseline, but humans are much more complex than merely taking an average. The average person actually doesn’t return to the same baseline after marriage.
This study disproves that we always fully adapt to important events. The truth is, sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. True, the peaks and dips don’t stay peaks and dips forever, but it wouldn’t be correct to say our baseline cannot change. Getting married absolutely can make you happier, if your initial reaction to marriage is positive.