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Study finds happiness persists, despite illness

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Despite what able-bodied healthy people might think, people with severe illnesses and disabilities don't wallow in misery and self-pity all the time.

In fact, a new study finds, such patients on the whole may be just as happy as those without major medical conditions.

The finding adds to the growing body of evidence that ill and disabled people adapt to their condition and show a resilience of spirit that many healthy people can't imagine. It's published in the new issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by a team led by University of Michigan Health System researchers.

The researchers made their surprising finding by having 49 pairs of dialysis patients and healthy people report their mood every few hours for a week, using a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) such as a Palm. The patients had all been in dialysis for at least three months, visiting a hemodialysis center three or more times a week for hours at a time to have their blood cleaned because their kidneys had failed.

Lead author Jason Riis, a former U-M graduate student now at Princeton University, programmed the PDAs to beep randomly during each two-hour period of an entire week, and prompt participants to report their mood at those random moments by completing a quick series of ratings.

"The big advantage of using PDAs is that you can get representative snapshots of a person's experience, rather than just relying on their overall impressions of their lives," says Riis, adding that several studies have shown such overall impressions to be biased in a variety of ways. "Our snapshots revealed that the patients were in good moods the vast majority of the time, and that their moods were not substantially worse than those of the healthy people."

"This is further evidence that people adapt emotionally to serious adversity, such as end-stage kidney failure," says senior author Peter Ubel, M.D., a U-M professor of inte
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