Most people who live with serious disability or illness, such as kidney failure, appear to adapt well and maintain a healthy outlook on life, new research reports.
This trend may be surprising to some — the report also found that people without serious illnesses tended to underestimate the level of happiness in these patients. “We think it is encouraging that for at least some illnesses, life seems to (eventually) go on and that people come to experience good and even normal mood levels,” study author Dr. Jason Riis of Princeton University in New Jersey told Reuters Health. “We cannot adapt to anything. But we are generally more resilient than we think,” he said. In the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Riis and his colleagues note that this is not the first study to show that people can adjust to good and bad life events. For instance, a nearly 30-year old study found that paraplegics were not that much less happy than lottery winners. In the current study, Riis and his colleagues asked 49 dialysis patients to rate their moods on a regular basis. These patients were matched by age, sex and race to 49 people not on dialysis who were asked to imagine what their life would be like on dialysis. Eighty-two subjects completed the study. The investigators found that dialysis patients were generally just as happy as people not on dialysis. While healthy people expected that they would have low moods most of the time if they were on dialysis, dialysis patients had low moods “quite infrequently,” Riis said. This finding suggests that emotional highs and lows gradually dissipate over time, Riis noted. For instance, getting married usually makes people feel great, while getting divorced often has the opposite effect. “But over time the emotions of the new circumstance stabilize so that being married is not that great and being divorced is not that bad,” he explained. Similarly, the dialysis patients said they believed they would be happier if they had never developed kidney disease — an unlikely event, given that they were generally just as happy as the subjects without kidney disease, Riis noted. This suggests that patients also don’t realize that the happiness they would feel at being cured would eventually fade over time, he said. In another experiment, Riis and his team asked people who were or were not on dialysis to rate their moods periodically, and then recall later how they felt on those days. They found that dialysis patients remembered fairly accurately how they felt, while healthy people tended to rate their previous moods as worse than they actually were.This finding offers another, more subtle explanation for why generally healthy people believe that being very ill can give you a negative outlook on life, Riis noted. “If healthy people underestimate their own moods, they would also tend to underestimate the moods of other people, including patients,” he said. Just why healthy people do this is somewhat of a mystery, Riis noted. “We speculate that the hardships of illness may make sick people more likely to savor good moments, but we do not have evidence for this,” he said. (Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology, Reuters Health, February 2005.)