When illness blocks your way in life, how do you respond? Do you keep pursuing your goals, hoping that you can overcome that obstacle? Or do you accept your situation, and find other things to aim for? A study claims that to be happy, you have to give up hope.
People with inflammatory bowel disease often need surgery, and in some cases that will mean a colectomy – the removal of the colon. In some cases, that operation can be reversed — making the ostomy temporary. In some cases, the operation is permanent.
In 2009, team of economists published a study titled “Happily Hopeless”, reporting that people with permanent colostomies were ‘happier’ than people with temporary ostomies. The study got a lot of press, with reports claiming it shows that sick people who give up hope are more happy.
But a close look at the numbers in the study tells a different story. Here is a graph that tracks subjects’ scores on the seven-point ‘Satisfaction With Life’ Scale over six months:
The dashed line represents people with temporary ostomies; the solid line is those with permanent ostomies.
The authors report the numbers: “well-being increased for permanent patients (from 4.02 to 4.52 for life satisfaction, and from 5.32 to 6.89 for ladder), but not for temporary patients (from 4.62 to 3.95 for life satisfaction, and from 5.50 to 5.29 for ladder).”
What does the difference between 4.52 and 3.95 mean substantively? It turns out 4.52 is a solidly average score, and 3.95 is only slightly below the cut-off, according to the inventor of the “Satisfaction With Life” scale [pdf].
So it’s not like a 4.52 is living the good life, while a 3.95 is on a ledge somewhere ready to jump.
Granted the difference is significant: but why? Paraphrasing the authors:
- People don’t want to change
- People especially don’t want to change if it might later prove unnecessary
- People don’t want to look for good in a bad situation if the situation is only temporary,
- People want to believe they have a better future.
So what does this look like in practice?
As a thought experiment, imagine two men: one whose wife has been dead for two years, and the other whose wife has been in prison for two years and still has three years in her sentence. Which do you think is happier?
My money is on the widower, even though that scenario is objectively worse. But the widower has accepted the change, has adapted, and has given up on a better future (with that particular person, at least).
So a person’s ability to be happy does not totally depend on that persons circumstances. You can be happy in circumstances that are objectively miserable, so long as you’ve given up hope of anything better. The question is then, which do you value more: your happiness, or your hope?
The study’s bottom line is that giving up hope gets you .57 more life satisfaction — only 14% more ‘happiness’. It’s not a choice between hope and happiness: it’s a choice between hope with some happiness, and no hope with slightly more happiness.
Is the trade-off worth it?
Photo “Desert Leader” by Flickr user Hamed Saber used by CC license.