An experimental psychologist investigating the possibility of lasting happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky understands far better than most of us the folly of pinning our hopes on a new car--or on any good fortune that comes our way. We tend to adapt, quickly returning to our usual level of happiness.
The classic example of such "hedonic adaptation" comes from a 1970s study of lottery winners, who a year after their windfall ended up no happier than nonwinners. Hedonic adaptation helps to explain why even changes in major life circumstances--such as income, marriage, physical health and where we live--do so little to boost our overall happiness. Not only that, but studies of twins and adoptees have shown that about 50 percent of each person's happiness is determined from birth.
This "genetic set point" alone makes the happiness glass look half empty, because any upward swing in happiness seems doomed to fall back to near your baseline.