Apparently the idea that "the art of losing isn't hard to master," isn't just a poetic conceit. Scientists doing studies on how people think they'll feel after disaster have found that people have no idea how little it will affect them. Turns out we're all going to be a lot less miserable than we expect.
You Have No Idea How Miserable You'll Be
The above statement sounds like a threat, but it's actually a reassurance. When people think of how unhappy certain events will make them, they are rarely able to give good approximations. Generally, people think that they will be stuck in the moment of their peak unhappiness forever. They don't understand that we heal emotionally. This healing is likened by scientists to an immune response to an infection. This healing process is so predictable, and so predictably ignored, that scientists call the fact that we don't take the healing into account "immune neglect."
A group of researchers took a look at immune neglect in a series of tests. They went for career disappointment first, sending out surveys to assistant professors at universities, asking them to rate how happy they were, and how happy they expected to be if they were turned down for tenure. Those still awaiting a decision expected that they would be far less happy if they were rejected. No doubt if any of them got the survey the moment after they had been rejected, they would be exactly that unhappy. However, the researchers also surveyed tenured and non-tenured people over a span of 10 years. They could find no major difference in the happiness levels of those who had been accepted and those who had been rejected.
Continuing along the lines of acceptance and rejection, the researchers interviewed incoming college students about their romantic relationships. They asked the students who were in relationships how they imagined they would feel two months after being dumped. (In a deliciously cynical move, the scientists decided on the two-month time period because they knew that many people had probably gotten dumped over the summer, and would have been single for around two months at the time of the survey.) Again, people expected they would be far more unhappy than anyone in that position actually was.
A final test took a political turn. It can give io9 readers ammo for those tedious people who talk about emigrating or seceding if their candidate of choice didn't get elected. The researchers asked people involved with the campaigns how happy they predicted they would be one month after the election. Unsurprisingly, no one was as unhappy as they expected to be.
Overall, the researchers found, that people "dramatically and consistently" overestimated how unhappy they would be if things didn't go their way. They were much more likely to overestimate their unhappiness at losing than their happiness at winning.
The Emotional Immune Response
There are a lot of reasons why people aren't living in perpetual unhappiness after rejection and disappointment. Much of the time, we simply over-estimate how much something will hurt. We foresee the worst possible scenario, and we foresee it happening all at once, instead of considering that it might take time, and that we might find a way to compensate.
When we can't compensate directly, the "immune response" kicks in. We rationalize why something happened, and when we do that, we feel better. This rationalization is key. It's by thinking up reasons for our disappointment (other than our utter inadequacy) that we shake off the unhappiness and get on with our lives. Oddly, being victimized makes us feel better.
When two groups of subjects were brought in for a personality test, one was told that their personalities would be analyzed by a computer, while the other was told they would be analyzed by a team of scientists. After undergoing evaluation, they would get one of three profiles. A "mundane" profile used phrases like "fairly competent" and "few qualities that distinguish them from others." A second profile was more flattering. The last profile openly used words like, "exceptional" and "extraordinary." The subjects were all given the mundane profile, and asked to rate their happiness levels five minutes afterwards. That must have been a fun five minutes. After the five minutes were up, the people who believed they had been scored by computer were much happier than those who thought that scientists had peered into their very soul and found it undistinguished. Computers were just dumb machines, and much more fallible than groups of other humans. The emotional immune response seized on that possibility for error, and buoyed the subject's spirits.
Another two groups of subjects were asked to come in to supposedly interview for a job. One group got a committee asking them good questions. The other got a single interviewer saying asking things like, "Why did you pick your major?" Both groups of subjects were rejected, but those who had had to answer questions that resembled boring and irrelevant chat-up lines at a frat party felt less unhappy, given 10 minutes to recover, than the people who had been interviewed thoroughly and fairly. Being rejected for unfair reasons was easier to take than being rejected for fair reasons.
The Best Way to Screw It All Up
How to tumble people back into a pit of despair? The easiest way is to talk to them about their unfortunate situation. Everyone likes to hash things out when they're miserable, but once they've recovered, they don't want to be dragged back down. One common complaint among those with serious illnesses is friends coming by and bursting into tears, or wanting to talk about the illness and how sad they are. The patient, however serious their illness is, wants to have as pleasant a time as they can, not be reminded of their misfortune.
The fairer, but perhaps more unkind, way to cut someone down when they're back on their feet is to point out the flaws in their self-justification. Reminding someone that they might have failed because they deserved it, or they're not better off without their ex, or the game wasn't rigged, eliminates their carefully-built defenses. Once someone has got it into their head that they were rejected from a job because the people doing the interview were stupid, were using an unfair rubric, and were probably related to the person who got the job — leave them be. They're as happy as they're going to get.