Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people's sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures.
This capacity to adapt to life circumstances and return to baseline levels of happiness has been dubbed the "hedonic treadmill", and while it is reassuring in the face of bad events, the implication for policy makers is that there is little they can do to improve the population's happiness.
According to Daniel Mochon and colleagues, however, this is not the full story. Mochon's team have tested the idea that whereas rare, massive events have no lasting effect on happiness, the cumulative effect of lots of little boosts may well have the power to influence happiness over the longer-term.
An initial study questioned the happiness of 2,095 participants as they were either entering or leaving a place of worship. Across 12 different religious denominations, the results were the same: those people questioned after a religious service were happier than those questioned before. Moreover, the more times a person said they'd attended a service in the last month (the average was four times), the happier they tended to be.
A second study found similar results for people attending a gym or yoga class. Again, those questioned on leaving were happier than those questioned on arrival. Moreover, the more times someone reported going to the gym in the last month, the happier they were.
"Our findings imply that, in contrast to the notion of an inescapable hedonic treadmill, it is not pointless for people to seek to improve their well-being," the researchers said. "However, improvement may not come from major events such as winning the lottery, despite the seemingly life-changing nature of such examples. Rather it seems like the key for long lasting changes to well-being is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."
So what are the policy implications for this new research? The researchers said single-shot events such as a tax cut will probably have little impact on people's happiness. By contrast, "policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."
D MOCHON, M NORTON, D ARIELY (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being Journal of Economic Psychology, 29 (5), 632-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004