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Most People Regain Happiness After Job Loss

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- As million of workers have discovered in recent years, losing a job is upsetting and unsettling and can reduce even the most stoic to tears.

But buck up. About a year later, the majority of people have shaken off the unemployment blues and have returned to their previous levels of happiness, a new study reveals.

That runs counter to earlier studies that have suggested job loss is so devastating that most people never fully recovery emotionally, said Isaac Galatzer-Levy, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and the study's lead author.

"We know a certain subset of the population responds badly to difficult events, whether it's trauma, bereavement or job loss, but it's way less people than we used to think," Galatzer-Levy said. "Most people bounce back just fine. Most people are psychologically resilient. If we were a species that fell apart every time something bad happened to us, we wouldn't get very far."

For the study, published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics, the researchers looked at data on 774 Germans who'd lost their jobs between the late 1980s and 2003. Most had lost jobs during a late 1980s economic downturn, during which mass layoffs were common, Galatzer-Levy said. The data had information on the workers' happiness levels in the several years leading up to the layoff and several years after.

Participants were asked, "How satisfied are you nowadays with your life as a whole?"

About 69 percent of respondents reported being less happy after losing their job, but by one year out, they had recovered their earlier levels of happiness.

For this group, the temporary dip in unhappiness actually began in the years leading up to the layoff. "They may have been able to see it coming, and it had a negative impact on them," Galatzer-Levy said.

Nearly 15 percent reported happiness levels that were gradually improving before losing their jobs. After the job loss, happiness dipped for this group but then rose again and returned to the pre-unemployment level.

Still, not everyone bounced back so quickly. About 13 percent reported being unhappy before losing their job and remained unhappy afterward.

"They are a depressed group and not happy with their life," Galatzer-Levy said. "They also were the least likely to be re-employed."

Another 4 percent seemed to be truly shaken by losing their job. They saw their happiness levels plummet after job loss, and, though they gradually recovered, at three years out they had not regained their previous sense of well-being.

"There is a small group of people that does really badly," he said. "This is the group that pulls the average way down."

This also might explain why other studies have shown that people who are laid off never regain their prior level of happiness.

Of course, Germany in the late 1980s is not the United States during the current economic downturn, Galatzer said, noting that he can't tell for sure if the findings would apply here. But he suspects a similar pattern would hold.

"Physically and psychologically, human beings are a very resilient species," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense that unemployment would take this huge toll on you that you can't recover from."

Robert Chope, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and a psychologist with the Career and Personal Development Institute in San Francisco, called the results "interesting and not necessarily surprising."

"I have worked with many clients who have done quite well after a layoff and change, often radical, in their career paths," Chope said.

However, the paper didn't delve into the nature of the work that people did before losing their job, whether they could easily transfer their training and expertise into a new job or whether their knowledge was obsolete. And it didn't look at whether their age affected how quickly they recovered.

"A person losing a job at 50 is very different from someone losing it at 30," Chope said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Labor has help for dealing with job loss.

SOURCES: Isaac Galatzer-Levy, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, department of psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Robert Chope, Ph.D., professor, counseling, San Francisco State University, and psychologist, Career and Personal Development Institute, San Francisco; November 2010, Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics

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