Life Satisfaction in the Wake of Disability

What one brings to a situation influences its impact

Posted Dec 08, 2011

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.

One of the parable studies in positive psychology is an investigation reported some years ago by Phillip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman (1978). These psychologists were then at Northwestern University, and the state of Illinois had just started to run a lottery. The researchers interviewed 22 state lottery winners, each of whom had received at least $50,000 during the past year and some as much as $1,000,000. The winners were asked to rate their past, present and future (expected) happiness on scales from 0 = not at all happy to 5 = very happy, as well as the pleasure they took in mundane activities like reading a magazine, again on 0-5 scales. Brickman and his colleagues also interviewed a group of 58 individuals who had not won the lottery but lived in the same neighborhoods as the winners. The results showed that lottery winners were scarcely more happy than the comparison research participants in terms of their present happiness (4.00 versus 3.82) and future happiness (4.20 versus 4.14). And winners found less pleasure in everyday activities than nonwinners (3.33 versus 3.82).

The researchers also interviewed 29 individuals who in the preceding year had suffered an accident that left their limbs permanently paralyzed. Their present life satisfaction was rated as 2.96, lower than that of the lottery winners (4.00) but probably not as low as one might have predicted. And their expected future happiness and their pleasure in everyday activities were slightly higher than that of the lottery winners (4.32 versus 4.20 for future happiness and 3.48 versus 3.33 for everyday pleasure).

This study is sometimes described as showing that paraplegics and lottery winners are equally satisfied with life, which is not exactly what the actual data show. The real results are provocative enough, and we should not gloss over the difficulties faced by individuals with spinal cord injuries and the toll that these difficulties can take on life satisfaction.

Be that as it may, I welcomed the publication of a recent study by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood (2011) that provides a more nuanced way of understanding the impact of disability on life satisfaction. These researchers had available longitudinal data from a large and representative sample of German adults. Available measures included questionnaire items assessing life satisfaction as well as Big Five personality traits.

In the course of the longitudinal study, 307 individuals among the 11,680 participants became "officially certified as having a reduced capacity to work or being severely handicapped," according to German disability law and independent medical assessment. It was therefore possible to use these data to investigate longitudinally life satisfaction in the wake of disability and its determinants.

Here are the main findings. First, disability in general led to decreased in life satisfaction. Second, by the fourth year following disability, some adaptation was evident; that is, life satisfaction scores began to return to pre-disability levels. Third, pre-disability life satisfaction robustly predicted post-disability life satisfaction. Fourth, and perhaps most interestingly, "adaptation" occurred more completely for some individuals than for others, specifically those with the personality trait of agreeableness. This trait reflects a general orientation to social harmony. People high on agreeableness tend to be compassionate, considerate, and cooperative.

The authors of this research report speculated that agreeableness can help people who have experienced disability by attracting social support. The practical implication of these findings is thus a sad irony: Those who most need support may be those least likely to receive it.

Said in a more positive way, the results of this study suggest that people who do well in the wake of disability are the same people who were doing well before.

This is a familiar research finding. What someone brings into a situation, even a terrible one, determines what is taken out of it, whether it is illness, trauma, or—as in the present case—disability.

As if we needed another reason to undertake programs to encourage the sorts of styles and habit of concern to positive psychology, here we have one. If we can promote life satisfaction and a social orientation among people, we may be providing them with resources that work against the negative consequences of disability, if and when it occurs.


Boyce. C. J., & Wood, A. M. (2011). Personality prior to disability determines adaptation: Agreeable individuals recover lost life satisfaction faster and more completely. Psychological Science, 22, 1397-1402.

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

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