Moller on Love and Death

Think of the person who loves you more than anyone else in this world does.  And now think about how that person would feel if you suddenly died.  Would he or she be utterly heartbroken?  Filled with despair?  Or would the person perhaps be deeply unhappy but somehow manage to make it through the next year or so? 

As it happens, there has been a great deal of  systematic psychological research on this topic, and the overwhelming preponderance of  data supports the conclusion that most people simply aren’t that disturbed when their loved ones die.  People appear to be upset for a relatively short time  and then — after that brief interval is over — they feel more or less the same as they did before.  Thus, one recent study showed that people sometimes felt more depressed immediately after their loved ones died but that even two months after the death of their loved ones there was no  significant increase in depression. 

Psychologists sometimes suggest that we should be happy and inspired to find that people show such ‘resilience’ in the face of hardship.  They suggest that it is a good thing that people are able to get over their problems and simply move on. 

But in a forthcoming paper (titled, appropriately enough, ‘Love and Death‘), the philosopher Dan Moller argues for a more bittersweet conclusion.  Although there is surely something good about the fact that people are able to avoid sadness in these difficult straits, he claims that there is actually something to be regretted about our surprising resilience.  The problem, he suggests, is that our lack of emotional response shows a failure to properly appreciate the importance of those we care for most. 

I think his paper is fantastic, and I would encourage you all to read it… but whether you read it or not, I would love to hear your thoughts on the basic thesis.  Is there something of value in the despair and suffering we sometimes experience when bad things happen to those we love?  Even if no good consequences come from this feeling, might there be something of value in the feeling itself? 

25 Replies to “Moller on Love and Death

  1. Josh,
    We might also be still laboring under the lamentable ideology of romanticism. What would be truly horrifying is if people tended to forget all about their loved ones when they die. As we sometimes do childhood acquaintances. No need for sobs, but please, when you look at a picture of the dead loved one, don’t say “Oh yeah…I kind of remember her”.

  2. Josh,
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I haven’t read Moller’s paper yet, but I’m quite sympathetic with his thesis. I agree that:

    Although there is surely something good about the fact that people are able to avoid sadness in these difficult straits, he claims that there is actually something to be regretted about our surprising resilience. The problem, he suggests, is that our lack of emotional response shows a failure to properly appreciate the importance of those we care for most.

    I think that our own Troy Jollimore has written on this issue, arguing that there are cases of meaningless happiness and meaningful suffering.

  3. I think Robert Johnson has hit the nail on the head.
    A romantic might claim that a “proper appreciation” of the significance of the Holocaust and all the other terrible crimes of history would involve constantly quivering and frothing at the mouth with horror and outrage. But it’s surely more plausible that the appropriate attitude is an attitude (recognizing the badness of what happened at the time) that is stored away in one’s stock of attitudes, in roughly the same way as my belief that Beethoven was born in 1770 is stored in my stock of beliefs — not an attitude that consists in some permanent change in one’s conscious state.

  4. I was just teaching on this very kind of quesiton today! One of my students suggested that one class of considerations that bear on whether (or not) to feel an emotion is moral. The idea was that in some cases one *owes* the deceased one’s grief.
    Additionally, fittingness considerations are relevant here — and having read only your description of the paper — it sounds like these are the considerations Moller invokes. Grief is fitting to the extent one shall never see the loved one again. To extent your grief fades the change must typically be not that you’ll see the loved one again, but rather that they are no longer loved.
    And that grief fades so quickly suggests that our loves are less resiliant than we might wish.

  5. The experimental information that Moller ruminates on concerns spouses or those in long term committed relationships. That is sufficiently specific to exclude other sorts of cases, like historical ones (with some exceptions, like being married to one who dies in office), close friends, old schoolboy friendships, and a host of others.
    The notion of fittingness, alluded to by Alex, strikes me as Proustianly complicated. Fitting to whom? The person that they hope to be, on their own terms? or the person that others (other relatives, friends, social group, society) expect them to be? or the person that they – inaccurately, perhaps even self-deceptively- percieve themselves to be? (there are many other questions would cover every combination that I’ll leave out here)
    My gut tells me that whatever the answers to the quetions above are, the response would be particular, indeed unique, to those in the relationship, including their relationship’s history. But gut feelings don’t make a good argument. Besides, even if they were unique, experiments would likely show similarities and maybe even patterns and vague groups of responses to such a loss. Perhaps there is more need for experimentation on it (or looking through the experiments already conducted).
    On resiliance itself, if its granted that fitting responses are unique, it invites a strong skepticism of judgments made of loss-sufferers, for there is so much that is unknown, and practically speaking, unknowable. The aggregation of the experimental data ingnores this. Perhaps the value in resiliance is to less in a moral evaluation of a person’s case, and more in the social consequences (like, crassly, greater resiliance is better since it will cause less loss in productivity (where the loss-sufferer is working)).

  6. Does this vary with how people die. When my father died after a heart attack and a very unhappy 3 + months in hospital beds, it took me a really long time to get over it. When my mother died after many years of Alzheimer’s it was a relief for me personally, and also as someone who cared about her (as well as for her).
    When I reflect on this, it seems to me that the first death was bad for my dad, but the second was good for my mom. Of course in each case I also missed them once they were gone (though in my Mom’s case I missed her before she died). But that fact was minor in comparison. So it seems to me that the badness of the death for the person who dies may be relevant to what feels like appropriate grieving.

  7. Robert and Ralph,
    I wonder whether you two think that it might be better if we experienced little or no grief at all. If Robert thinks it’s important, we can presume that we don’t need to grieve to ensure that we won’t forget our loved ones. And if Ralph thinks it’s important, we can presume that we experience some grief but for only as long as his belief that Beethoven was born in 1770 tends to stay in the forefront of his mind. But wouldn’t it be lamentable if when we found out that a loved one had died (a tragic death) we experienced only a couple minutes of grief and were then ready to move on (asking the nurse out a couple minutes after our spouse died)? If so, then I want to hear why, in thinking that the appropriate period of grief should be longer they do, I must be under grip of the “lamentable ideology of romanticism.” Why aren’t you two under the grip of the same ideology in thinking that some period of grief is appropriate (or that not forgetting them is appropriate)?

  8. Suppose we distinguish between three ways of being valuable:
    (1) Some things are intrinsically valuable – they are valuable just because of their intrinsic properties.
    (2) Some things are instrumentally valuable – they are valuable in virtue of their causal consequences.
    (3) Some things are signatorily valuable – they are valuable as a sign of something else that is valuable.
    I am inclined to say that feelings of grief have signatory value. When you have them to some appropriate degree, it indicates that you are not a psychopath. The feelings are a sign of emotional health. (Grief would then be like physical pain in one respect – nobody thinks physical pain is intrinsically good, but if you didn’t feel pain, it would indicate that you have a problem.)
    I don’t think feelings of grief have any intrinsic value at all. If we say they do, we run the following risk: imagine one person dies, and billions of people feel an appropriate amount of grief about it. If those grief feelings are intrinsically valuable, and intrinsic values add up, the death would turn out to make things better on the whole, even though nobody is ever happier as a result. (Hurka and other transvaluers have to deal with this sort of problem.) You could deny additivity, but it seems better to me to deny the intrinsic value claim.
    I guess the upshot is I don’t think it’s a shame that the feelings of grief don’t last longer, unless we suppose that if they did, it would be a sign that we are emotionally healthier. Which I doubt – as Ralph points out, we’d be basket cases if they lasted too long.
    (Disclaimer – like most everyone else here I haven’t actually read Moller’s paper yet.)

  9. Doug,
    Depends on what we’re thinking of as ‘grieving’ and ‘moving on’, of course. We think people’s social connections should be ‘deep’, and if they don’t feel grief proportional to the nature of the social connection, we think that’s a person who doesn’t care enough. But grief, depth and longer-than-episodic depression shouldn’t be confused. There are lots of things that can be going on with someone whose depression continues on past the psychological norm — other explanations — than that they’re shallow, uncaring, not ideal from a moral point of view. And, again, ‘caring’ doesn’t have to express itself in debilitating emotion.
    We know what’s ‘too far’, by the way: My wife dies and so I shoot myself, or curl up and waste away. Thinking that is ‘noble’ or ‘admirable’ or that I care more than others because of this, is pure romanticism. How far short of that is not ‘too far’ probably depends on the case.

  10. Ben,
    Why assume that Moller must be saying that appropriate grief has intrinsic (or any other sort) of value? As Josh describes things, the issue seems to be whether grief is appropriate when a loved one dies (and, if so, how much grief is appropriate), not whether such appropriate grief has intrinsic value.
    It may be appropriate for you to believe that P given certain other beliefs that you also have, but I don’t see that as being a claim about the value of your believing that P. So, perhaps, the thought is that our failure to respond to the death of a loved one appropriately (if in fact Moller is right that our quick resilience is inappropriate) is to be regretted in the same way that our tendency to reach certain fallacious conclusions is to be regretted. That is, our lack of full rationality is something to be regretted.
    Robert,
    I think that I agree with everything you said. The claim that I thought that Moller was making was that people feeling “more or less the same as they did before” a mere “two months after the death of their loved ones…shows a failure to properly appreciate the importance of those…[they] care for most.” This is the claim that I am sympathetic to, and I don’t see how in making such a claim I would be “laboring under the lamentable ideology of romanticism.” And this claim is compatible with the sorts of claims that you were making in your latest comment, e.g., that there’s nothing noble or admirable about shooting oneself after one’s loved one dies. So, yes, shooting oneself is not an appropriate response, but I would think that feeling more or less the same a mere two months after someone very dear to you dies a tragic death is also not the appropriate response.

  11. Hi Doug,
    I was just responding to Josh’s original question: “Is there something of value in the despair and suffering we sometimes experience when bad things happen to those we love? Even if no good consequences come from this feeling, might there be something of value in the feeling itself?” And my answer was, yes, there is something of value there, but it’s not intrinsic value. I didn’t take this to be an objection to Moller.

  12. Doug,
    Again, depends on what ‘feeling more or less the same’ means. I think Ralph’s points are important in this respect. The episodic depression is over in two months. But that doesn’t mean they ‘feel more or less the same’ in a quite different sense, that they remember the person fondly, think of her often, are reminded of her by a variety of places and situations, speak of her with friends and family, take notice of and further things of importance to her. Such things are all compatible with returning to an emotional baseline two months after a death.

  13. Doug, thanks for the plug! Yes, my paper “Meaningless Happiness and Meaningful Suffering” is very much on the topic, and deals specifically with the case of grief. (There is a pdf here if anyone is interested: http://www.csuchico.edu/~tj17/MHMS.pdf)
    Part of the argument of that paper is that since grief is a cognitive response, it is more properly evaluated in epistemological terms (as epistemically justified or unjustified) than in standard axiological terms (as valuable or disvaluable). So while in a broad sense I would certainly answer ‘yes’ to Josh’s question, “Is there something of value in the despair and suffering we sometimes experience when bad things happen to those we love?,” I would hasten to add that this does not imply that the grief in any sense makes the world a better place—it’s not that sort of value (so we don’t have to worry about too much such grief adding up to make the world better overall, as Ben suggests). It’s valuable, rather, only in a much looser (but permissible in English) sense: the grief response is appropriate, and therefore a better response—quite possibly the right or proper response. Appropriate responses are valuable in some sense—there is reason to have them, thus something to be said for them—but their existence doesn’t add good stuff to the world, as is ordinarily assumed to be the case with valuable things.
    Having said that, it’s not clear to me what the argument against feeling sad at the death of a loved one is supposed to be. Robert’s first post suggests that one need not feel sad (“no need for sobs”), but that it is enough to remember the loved one. But surely this is not enough: if one remembers one’s deceased wife, but feels nothing (or worse, feels only negative things), something has gone wrong. (If I thought that was how my wife would respond to my death, I would be extremely distressed.) He modifies this in a later post, saying that the bereaved must remember the loved one fondly and think of her often. It is not clear to me whether he thinks the bereaved ought to go through any period of intense sadness at all. Perhaps his position is that of Epicetus, who writes:
    “With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” (Enchiridion, III)
    If so, I would say that Robert is laboring under the lamentable ideology of stoicism. In fact I would say this even if he is willing to allow for a period of intense sadness, given that he thinks that after two months one ought to return to one’s original “emotional baseline.” The problem is the same as that of the person who fails to respond emotionally to the news of her own impending death: she is alienated from the world, and incapable of properly valuing things which, in fact, matter a great deal, and which ought to matter a great deal to her.
    To forestall a possible misunderstanding of my position: my claim is not that the incapacity to grieve would somehow cause, or be causally linked with, a failure to make certain positive valuations, and it is the latter which is bad in itself. My claim, rather, is that the incapacity to grieve is itself bad, in very much the same way as the incapacity to form true beliefs about important matters is bad. A person who does not grieve her deceased lover fails as a lover, regardless of how she treated him in life.

  14. Interesting thread;
    It seems to me that there are ambiquities in the terms being used especially in the following:
    “data supports the conclusion that most people simply aren’t that disturbed when their loved ones die. People appear to be upset for a relatively short time and then — after that brief interval is over — they feel more or less the same as they did before.”
    What does “aren’t that disturbed” mean, to what mental states is it referring? Does one have to go into a state of depression to actually feel ‘that disturbed?’
    What does “feel more or less the same as they did before” actually signify. If a person is able to go about one’s normal life activites shortly after the death of a loved one, but at times feels great sorrow over the loss, is this more or less the same?
    My father died two years ago after a battle with cancer. He was a deeply religious person and was looking forward to his death and being reunited with God and those who had gone on before him. He did not feel any depression and loss over his dying. When he died, I felt bad for not having him in my life anymore, but I was happy for him, even though I do not share his beliefs. He faced his death with grace, dignity and without regret. Lucky person.
    Besides, who are we to judge how others should feel? Feelings are what they are and we do a disservice, I think, to others if we judge them on how we think they should react emotionally to the death of a loved one. I do not think that there is an ‘ought’ here, only an ‘is.’

  15. John,
    What claim is being made by “feelings are what they are”? (Beyond the obvious, tautological one.) Could one also say that “actions are what they are,” and so conclude that we ought not to judge other people’s actions? Or is the idea supposed to be that feelings are not under our control, and thus not subject to moral evaluation? But it seems that some feelings are — and certainly our tendencies to feel certain things can be influenced by the choices we make, over the long term. Besides, if a feeling expresses a person’s character then it is not clear that it should not be subject to moral evaluation, even if it is such a deep element of that person’s character that she could not have chosen to feel otherwise.
    Suppose Terry finds being a father burdensome, and finds himself relieved, liberated, and indeed happy, when his two children are killed in an accident. “I know people say this isn’t how one ought to react,” Terry says, “but feelings are what they are, and I don’t think there is any ought here, only an is.” I think there is something very wrong with Terry’s reaction, and that it is clear that he has a morally deficient character. I take it that you disagree?

  16. John,
    You say,

    Feelings are what they are and we do a disservice, I think, to others if we judge them on how we think they should react emotionally to the death of a loved one. I do not think that there is an ‘ought’ here, only an ‘is.’

    Do you mean to be saying that there is never an ought with respect to any feelings? Wouldn’t you say that people ought not hate others because of their skin color and that people ought not enjoy the suffering of innocent others? It seems to me that there are reasons for having certain feelings and not others and that we do good to reflect on our feelings and consider whether they are appropriate. Sometimes I catch myself feeling envy, anger, or hatred when such feelings are inappropriate, and I rightly judge that I should not be feeling this way. And sometimes in light of such judgments my inappropriate feelings dissipate.
    Now a different question is whether we ought to be careful before judging others on the basis of how they react to the death of a loved one. I agree that we should. (And note that there is a big difference between judging someone and judging that their feelings are inappropriate.) People express grief in different ways. Which sorts of feelings are appropriate will depend on the particulars of their relationship and on the circumstances of their loved one’s death. So I think that you’re right that we shouldn’t judge those who don’t react to the death of a loved one as we may have expected. But that’s very different from your claim that when it comes to such feelings (and to feelings in general) that there is no ‘ought’, but only an ‘is’.

  17. Troy
    I probably overstated my point, so let me try to be clearer.
    1) Person A has feeling x simply means that A has the feeling of x. (nothing much here,I agree. It is simply ‘raw data’.)
    2) Person A ought to feel x is to claim, I think, that A does not feel x, but should.
    My claim was obviously to 1, yours to 2.
    My problem is that I do not see how one can argue for 2 without already having a moral position regarding x that is not dependent on the feeling of x itself. Many people have ‘bad’ feelings, but do not act on them.
    If we maintatin that a good parent does certain things and a bad parent does not, then we have some criteria to judge whether a parent is good or bad. I think that this is going to be judged based on the actions of the parent, not the feelings that the parent has, although, the feelings may well influence how one acts.
    I remember walking my youngest during his fussy period from 12 midnight to 2 am when I had to leave for work in the foundry at 4 am. Sometimes, I had horrible feelings regarding my child. I could imagine him ‘sailing thru the window and crashing into the street below’ or ‘dripping off the wall.” I did not act on these feelings. I was able to control them. Were the feelings bad or simply feelings? To say I ought not to have them seems to me to imply an intentionality to having feelings that I do not think exists. I did not intend to feel bad about my child, I simply did. The difference between being a child abuser and not being a child abuser is how one reacts to the feelings one has. The actions I performed regarding my younger son were good or bad because they were intentional, but not the feelings themselves.
    I suppose that if one wants to call these feelings bad then I really have no objection (as I said, I overstated my postion), but I do not think I was a bad parent for having them.
    My question re your example is why did Terry find being a father burdensome? What duties and obligations of parenthood did he find problematic? Do these duties and obligations correspond, or depend upon, having a particular feeling regarding them or are they justified independently of these feelings? Do not people who hate their children still have the duty to provide for their well-being?
    I enjoyed your comments. Thanks

  18. Doug
    Thanks for you comments
    There might be good reasons not to have certain feelings, but that does not mean that feelings are not simply what they are. Why not hate people because of the color of their skin? It is because skin color, gender, etc are morally neutral characterisitcs relative to determining moral worth and in explaining and justifying how we should act towards others. We would maintain, I think, that even people who hate others should not act upon this hatred because of the ill effects it has on those affected by the action. Having a feeling is not good or bad in itself, the consequences of acting upon them are. Now, we might wish to eliminate a certain emotion because having it tends towards bad behavior, but that is not to imply an ought relative to the emotion; it attaches, I think, to the behavior.
    I am not claiming that one should not reflect upon one’s emotions and try to change them, I am only claiming that emotions, in themselves, are simply there. They are the ‘raw data’ just like perceptions are raw data. There is no intentionality involved in how one emotionally reacts to something happening. I take it that intentionality is one of the things that differentiates emotions from other types of mental states, to which the ‘ought’ more correctly attaches.
    One way of looking at this is to ask how we teach our children not to hate? Do we not focus on the actions towards others that are generated by those feelings, but not directly the feelings themsleves. How do we judge others relative to what their emotional states are, if not on how they act towards others?
    As I write this, I realize that I am wrong. In one sense ought can apply to an emotion if we want to say that we ought not to have a certain emotion because having it leads to bad behavior. If that is what you mean, then I agree.
    Anyway, You, and Troy, have given me something to think about. Thanks.

  19. John,
    You write: “I take it that intentionality is one of the things that differentiates emotions from other types of mental states, to which the ‘ought’ more correctly attaches.”
    What exactly do you mean my “intentionality”? Do you think that intentionality is involved in believing Q on the basis of ‘If P, then Q’ and ‘P’? I just believe Q in response to thinking both ‘If P, then Q’ and ‘P’. I don’t form the intention to believe Q. Don’t you think that ought correctly attaches to the attitude of believing despite its lack of “intentionality”? It seems to me that believing, desiring, and intending are all attitudes that I have non-voluntarily in response to certain beliefs and perceptions. I see the cursor move on the computer screen, and I thus believe that it is moving. I see that I made a mistake in what I just wrote, and I thus intend to erase what I just wrote. I don’t form the intention to intend to erase what I just wrote. It seems to me that intentions to act assail me in the same non-voluntary ways that other attitudes (such as belief) and feelings assail me. This is not to say that these feelings and attitudes are completely out of my control. They’re not. Indeed, they’re responsive to my judgments about whether I have reason to have them.
    I also wonder whether you have the same view regarding beliefs that you seem to have regarding emotions, namely, that the ought doesn’t attach to belief but only to acting on the belief?

  20. Doug
    By ‘intentionality’ I mean that I knowingly direct my mind towards performing a certain action. It involves, among other things, deliberation, evaluation of what is occurring, and making choices based on what I have the best reason(s) to do. I do not agree the intentionality simply comes about unreflectively, while emotions (feelings), mere beliefs and desires, etc do. Now, I will agree that I do things out of habit and that this sometimes has the appearance of acting intentionally. But I would distinguish between those actions that are done after direct deliberation, etc. from those done out of habit. Habits can intentionally be established.
    When I have an experience that results in my having a specific emotion, I do not intentionally bring this emotion into being. The emotion is a direct response to stimuli, not reason. When I see a child suffering, I do not think about having a specific emotion, I simply have it. I can reflect upon the emotion once I have it. I might even wish I did not have the emotional response to certain stimuli that I do, but this occurs after the fact of the emotion being present. It does not change the original emotion. I have a new one, but the new one does not replace the other one as if it never happened.
    I think that when someone says that a person should (ought to) have a certain emotional response, she is saying that she has that response and wants others to have it also. It is one way we group things together. Those that have the emotion are good; those that do not are not good or misguided. I look at this as an attempt to change future responses, not the historical one that took place, which of course cannot be changed (done away with) anyway. I know that ‘ought implies can,’ but ‘can’ has a future tense, not solely (or even importantly) a past tense when attached to comparing what I did and what I ‘should have done.’ I believe that if I should have done x and am reasonable then I would have done x. If I end up doing x and it was something that upon reflection and deliberation ‘I should not have done,’ then something was amiss in my original analysis and deliberation, if the action was intentional. I cannot change the past, but I can change my behavior as I move forward. I can change my future responses.
    In response to you last question, I think ought applies to both actions and beliefs, but attaches to them only after they have occurred. Saying “I ought not to believe x’ or ‘I ought not have done x’ is to say that I ought to change my belief and/or action to something more appropriate in the future, not that x does not exist. I hate to say this (it got me into ‘trouble’ before), but ….beliefs simply are what they are. The fact that a person believes x is not that interesting; it simply reflects the psychological makeup of that person. To say that a person ought not to believe x is to say she should not have the psychological makeup that she has (this is not to say she should not change her makeup if what she believes is shown to be unjustified). But that is like saying that a red rose should not be red. I may not like red roses or the color red, but that has nothing to do with the makeup of that rose. Now, philosophers are interested in whether or not the belief is justified, but that does not deny that the belief exists prior to the justification, only that it be justified (and changed if it cannot be justified).
    I am wondering if, when all is said and done, we really have a disagreement here, or are we simply starting at different points with the same results? I think what is needed, and possibly you, or others, have already done this, is a compete description of what occurs when we change our beliefs or emotions.
    I am enjoying this exchange. Thanks for stimulating my thinking.

  21. Josh, nice post.
    Something that Troy and others have said is quite relevant to something I’m working on. Troy says: “Appropriate responses are valuable in some sense—there is reason to have them, thus something to be said for them—but their existence doesn’t add good stuff to the world, as is ordinarily assumed to be the case with valuable things.” I’m interested to hear what people think about this. (Sorry if this is not quite the focus of the post.)For instance, G.E.Moore defined an appropriate response to X as the fact that “X + the response” has a certain value; e.g., it is better than “X + a different response”, or is positively good in itself (PE, Baldwin’s edition, 152, 239). Something’s clearly wrong but what exactly? Anyway what do people feel about this?

  22. Troy,
    “if one remembers one’s deceased wife, but feels nothing (or worse, feels only negative things), something has gone wrong. ”
    Unless this is incompatible with returning to an emotional baseline two months after a loved one is deceased, this is not in any way in conflict with what I said. But this seems quite compatible with returning to your pre-death emotional baseline. So I don’t see how this could be held against my position.
    Likewise, I said nothing that implies “after two months one ought to return to one’s original “emotional baseline.” Rather, I was rejecting the view that one ought not to return to that baseline. Why should there be something wrong with that? And, as I said, it would really be horrifying if people just forgot all about their loved ones (and this implies a wide variety of behaviors, mind you).
    So I don’t see what stoicism has to do with any of this.

  23. I’m afraid I haven’t gotten used to the pace of this blog, so this is probably no longer useful, but I did want to respond to something in Joshua’s original post (Joshua, let me know if you read this — if I don’t hear back perhaps I’ll email you).
    I haven’t read the article Joshua recommended yet, but he reports that it contains the following claim:
    “data supports the conclusion that most people simply aren’t that disturbed when their loved ones die. People appear to be upset for a relatively short time and then — after that brief interval is over — they feel more or less the same as they did before.”
    I’m not sure it’s so clear that the empirical evidence really supports this. For one thing, there is evidence that the death of a child permanently alters a person’s happiness “set-point”. I seem to recall that there are some studies that show the same for spousal deaths, though the decrease is less.
    The degree of change in a person’s psychological state is important here. Satisfaction with Life measures are often used in these studies and people’s overall assessment of their life satisfaction don’t move very much. It might be that the measures are not sensitive enough and that small changes matter to the individuals experiencing them. What I mean is that, given the instruments, returning “more or less” to how you were before might not actually be that great for you. Continuing grief just might not show up very clearly on overall assessments of life satisfaction.
    I suppose this doesn’t matter to the very interesting philosophical discussion that followed from Joshua’s original post. But it is nice to have the facts right.

  24. Val,
    These are excellent points. Moller reviews a great deal of evidence in his paper, but it is possible that all of this evidence is based on certain particular types of measures (e.g., judgments of life satisfaction) and that one could show more powerful effects of spousal death if one used a different sort of measure (e.g., feelings of happiness). I would love to hear more about the studies you allude to here.

  25. Hi Josh,
    Diener and his colleagues have done some relevant stuff on hedonic adaptation. Just looking briefly, I can’t find the study that says people don’t recover from the death of a child. Though I remember Shige Oishi (one of Diener’s former students) telling me this.
    The following article refers to a number of studies that reevaluate the adaptation model (adaptation to the death of a spouse in particular is discussed on p. 309):
    “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being”
    http://content.apa.org.floyd.lib.umn.edu/journals/amp/61/4/305.pdf
    One of the complaints Rich Lucas has about the lotteries and accident victims study in particular is that what the data really show is that while accident victims don’t stay as depressed as we guessed they would, they don’t bounce all the way back up either. The thing is that life-satisfaction reports are rather compressed into the above neutral half of the scale. So accident victims don’t report being miserable, and this was so surprising that it got a lot of attention.

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