How long do we feel sad after a serious personal setback? And what sorts of setbacks are particularly impactful? In these extraordinary times, I took a detour into new research from the field of Labor Economics to examine this question… how long does sadness last after a significant setback?
It might strike you as a bit odd that a science-based Marriage and Family Therapist would be reviewing breaking research in Labor Economics.
But my first advanced degree was in Labor Studies, and I’m also a published researcher in that field.
How people grapple with significant setbacks, and the choices they make, as a result, can be seen from both a therapeutic as well as an economic lens.
First, I need to qualify that we’re talking about the sadness of average people here, not folks suffering from clinical depression.
Let’s start by discussing what the saddest events are. New research tells us that grief at the loss of a loved one, significant financial losses, and severe illness, and are the most tragic events we experience. Covid-19 presents us with a combination of these significant personal and marital stressors.
Considering the epic history we are all grappling with, the science of sadness seems an appropriate line of inquiry for a couples therapist.
Dr. Nathan Kettlewell is a Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Economics Discipline Group at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of New South Wales in 2017.
His research centers primarily on health economics, behavioral economics, and the economics of risk. I was struck by how useful his new research is in exploring the question, “when will we settle back into feeling normal again?”
Nathan tells us that we struggle for about 4 years to recover our “pre-shock” sense of well-being after major health problems, the death of a loved one, divorce, or a severe financial reversal.
Interestingly, his research categorizes life events and offers couples therapists a timeline for understanding human resilience.
Here’s the bad news. Happy outcomes such as the birth of a child, marriage, or significant financial gain only lift our happiness for half as long. There is a drop off in delight after about 2 years.
This study confirms some of what we already know. Many significant life events such as moving into a new house or getting a new job have little impact on our felt sense of happiness. The events that produce significant sadness typically burden us for 4 years, while important happy experiences only lift us up for 2.
This was a large, longitudinal study. Nathan’s research team tracked the major life events of 14,000 people living in Australia for over 12 years from 2002 to 2016.
The most frequent life events for these study subjects were getting a new job, moving to a new home, pregnancy, and the illness or injury of a close family member.
The results showed that events that had the most significant negative impact on well-being were the death of a child, large financial losses, serious health problems, and divorce from, or death of, a partner.
The events that had the greatest positive impact were a large financial windfall, getting married, and having a child.
On the other hand, getting laid off or fired, receiving a promotion, or moving to a new home had relatively little impact on longer-term life-satisfaction and well-being.
Dr. Kettlewell had this to say:
“The life events that saw the deepest plunge in wellbeing were the death of a partner or child, separation, a large financial loss or a health shock.
But even for these negative experiences, on average people recovered to their pre-shock level of wellbeing by around four years.”
Dr. Kettlewell examined the differences between two distinctly different kinds of happiness: life-satisfaction, vs. “feeling good.”
Life-satisfaction was defined as how the study subjects assessed their lives overall. On the other hand, the “feeling good” form of happiness refers to transitory emotion felt in the present moment.
This is an important distinction. Life transitions offer challenges as well as opportunities. In other words, they require management, as the contours of life itself have fundamentally changed.
For example, it is well known that young couples starting a family feel more life-satisfaction in the first year. But become significantly less “happy” over time as they continue coping with new parenthood.
Dr. Nathan Kettlewell, the lead author, said:
“Marriage, childbirth and a major financial gain produced the greatest elevation to wellbeing, however they did not lead to long-lasting happiness – the positive effect generally wore off after two years.
However, there was also an anticipatory effect for marriage and childbirth, with wellbeing increasing prior to these events.”
Dr. Kettlewell elaborated on these findings:
“While chasing after happiness may be misplaced, the results suggest that the best chances for enhancing wellbeing may lie in protecting against negative shocks, for example by establishing strong relationships, investing in good health and managing financial risks.
And we can take consolation from the fact that, although it takes time, wellbeing can recover from even the worst circumstances.”
Nowadays, it seems we’re dealing with one damn thing after another. Let’s not kid ourselves that we will feel better just as soon as this is all over.
Dr. Kettlewell’s research is behavioral and unfettered by therapeutic sensibilities. Its essential finding is that we’ll still be recovering long after things “return to normal.”
On the other hand, recover we will.
Dr. Kettlewell’s research supports the theory of a hedonic treadmill. This is the notion that eventually, we tend to return to our relatively stable, “baseline” levels of happiness, despite experiencing major setbacks.
But first, some of us (myself included) may have to overcome our doomscrolling habits. We’re taxed to the max right now, and we can’t seem to look away. There is a neuroscientific basis as to why it takes us twice as long to recover from a major setback as it does for us to calmly acclimate to our good fortune.
Our brains evolved to constantly identify and assess threats in our environment. We are predisposed by nature to pay more attention to negative possibilities than to positive. Human beings scan for danger, and if danger is actively experienced, safety becomes an even more paramount concern.
This research is compelling. Even seen through a Behavioral Economics lens, Dr. Kettlewell’s study highlights the importance of a healthy marriage in managing significant grief and sadness. It takes a long time to handle serious personal setbacks. But if your marriage is strong, you are already buffered from the brunt of negative outcomes.
Online Couples therapy can help you during these tough times.
How long does a major sadness last? Our brains and nervous systems will take about 4 years to adjust. But if we are loved and love well, we will return more readily into a restored sense of well-being.
The differential impact of major life events on cognitive and affective well-being, (the author links open the overlay panel) NathanKettlewellRichard W.MorrisNickHoDeborah A.Cobb-ClarkSallyCrippsNickGlozier
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.