The experience of childhood trauma makes us less likely to have a happy and contented adulthood than those who were fortunate enough to have had a relatively stable childhood (all else being equal). However, in this article I look at four characteristics that can serve to perpetuate our feelings of discontent that have been identified by the discipline known as ‘positive psychology’, and, in fact, apply to all people, not just those of us who have experienced severe childhood trauma.
The four characteristics that can perpetuate our feelings of discontentment that positive psychology has identified are as follows :
1) NEGATIVE BIAS
2) LACK OF SELF CONTROL
3) SOCIAL COMPARISON
4) HEDONISTIC TREADMILL
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
1) NEGATIVE BIAS – Individuals who have suffered severe childhood trauma are especially likely to have a very negative outlook on life.
Positive psychologists have found that we are more affected by negative events and experiences in life than by positive ones. For example, we are more likely to recall a criticism of us than praise of us, and more likely to remember a failure than a success.
In other words, negative experiences reduce our sense of contentment more than positive events increase it.
The psychologist Baumeister summed up the situation pithily with the comment :’bad is stronger than good.’
However, we can reduce our tendency to think negatively with therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) – click here to read my article on CBT.
2) SOCIAL COMPARISON – Many people are extremely worried about their social status which is linked to having low self-esteem. Low self-esteem frequently results from having experienced significant childhood trauma (click here to read my article on self-esteem).
Even if what a person has, in ABSOLUTE TERMS, is very satisfactory, if the majority of his/her contemporaries have noticeably more, his/her level of contentment is likely to be reduced. A classic example of this can be illustrated as follows :
Would you rather :
a) Earn £50,000 per year, whilst all your contemporaries earn £25,000 per year
b) Earn £100,000 per year, whilst all your contemporaries earn £200,000 per year.
Research shows that the majority of people, due to to the ‘social comparison effect’, actually opt for the first choice (a).
However, buying lots of expensive material things does not tend to improve people’s level of contentment over the long-term, according to the research. It merely gives the individual a short-term ‘buzz’, but this very quickly fades due to a phenomenon known as the ‘hedonistic treadmill’.
3) THE HEDONISTIC TREADMILL – Individuals tend to become excited and happy when they make a large purchase but they soon adapt and habituate to whatever it is they have acquired and the initial pleasure it gave rise to disappears and the person soon ends up feeling as s/he when s/he did not have the possession.
The ‘high’of the acquisition is, then, fleeting and ephemeral – the pre-existing state of contentment/discontentment is soon returned to, known as the individual’s ‘set-point’ of contentment/discontentment.
Unfortunately, this can lead to a perpetual cycle of addiction – the postive emotions brought on by the purchase disappear fast, leading the individual feeling a need to make another purchase in order to reproduce the ‘high’. Then that ‘high’ fades too, and so on…and so on…
Interestingly, we also adapt to negative events fairly quickly. For example, even if a person has an accident leaving him/her severely disabled, whilst s/he will initially feel less content, research suggests that after the negative short/medium turn reaction, his/her level of contentment will return to its ‘set-point’ (i.e. what it was before the accident occurred).
On the other side of the coin, research also shows that people who win vast fortunes on the lottery tend to return to their ‘set-point’ of contentment (i.e. to what it was prior to their win).
4) LACK OF SELF-CONTROL – Frequently, those who have suffered significant childhood trauma find that they have greatly impaired impulse control as adults.
Sadly, however, constantly giving in to the impulse to obtain immediate gratification tends to make a person’s life much worst; indeed, research clearly indicates that developing strong self-control is strongly associated with a greater sense of well-being. (Click here to read my article on impulse control).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)