Beyond Happiness

TW: suicide, depression

With the arrival of 2021, living in this disturbing era, are you feeling happier or more depressed?

People often imagine that whether they win a happy life or fall into an abyss of misfortune. The fact of the matter is, is that people's mental worlds are adaptable and much higher than public expectations. This ability is a double-edged sword, which can help people overcome adversity but also make people lose the ability to feel being loved. Philip Brickman, the psychologist who first discovered this secret unfortunately ended his life when his career was at its peak. 

“A year after becoming paraplegic and a year after winning the lottery, you're equally as happy.”

This is a takeaway from Brickman’s research paper, Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? (1978). In this study, Brickman and other researchers recruited 22 lucky winners who won a large lottery ticket, 29 victims who were unfortunately paralyzed by an accident, and 22 control subjects. One-on-one interviews were also designed to ask them to assess their current happiness before the event and in the next two years.

Albeit the sample size of this study was significantly small using current standards, and the method was flawed, it still had a strong influence up until today. In academia, this paper has now been cited more than 3,000 times; to the general public, it conveys a concise and powerful message, that money cannot buy happiness.

money money unsplash

Further, Brickman’s team found that people who won the lottery are not happier than others, and accident victims have the same predictions of future happiness as ordinary people, even though they are even less happy now

When this study was published, Brickman was only 34 years old, a high-profile scholar at Northwestern University. According to his colleagues and friends, he was enthusiastic, charming, and constantly bringing new ideas. Soon after the article was published, he moved to the University of Michigan as the director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Institute for Social Research. Outside of work, he lived with his wife and three daughters on a small farm with beautiful scenery.

However, as his own research has demonstrated, positive events cannot bring long-term happiness. Only those close to him knew that under the appearance of a winner, the real Brickman had been troubled by depression for a long time and was extremely insecure. During that time, his career and marriage were facing a crisis: he was promoted, but he was not good at administrative affairs; he applied for a large amount of research funding but failed, and his wife looked down on social psychology. These conflicts between the two continued and they separated in the summer of 1981.

woman lying in white bed Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy from Unsplash On May 13, 1982, Brickman climbed the Tower Plaza, the tallest building in Ann Arbor, jumped from the 26th floor, and ended his life.

In his short lifetime, Brickman published about 50 papers and articles and left a manuscript. 

Less than a month before his death, he also published the paper Models of Helping and Coping (1982), demonstrating how different perceptions of dilemmas affect people's self-help or helping behavior.

Since it is not feasible to increase happiness indefinitely, what should people pursue? Brickman's answer is commitment.

Five years after his death, Brickman's book Commitment, Conflict, and Caring was published. He argued that commitment is the ultimate path to satisfaction; commitment does not always bring happiness, and sometimes even brings "conflict with freedom or happiness," but the more we sacrifice for something, the more we give it value.

Yet, overall, even though we know many truths, we may still experience a bad life. This may be the embarrassment faced by most psychologists and ordinary people, but we can always try to work harder to live on.