Will Cosmetic Surgery Make Me Happier?

Individuals who undergo cosmetic surgery expect to look better or younger, of course, but they also want to feel different—happier or more confident. But does it work? Whether you think peels are just for bananas or you’ve been under the knife more than a chopped salad, this week Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen answers the question: Will cosmetic surgery make me happier?

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #226
cosmetic surgery

But because the surgery doesn’t change the perception, patients with BDD are seldom satisfied and often become hopeless or angry after surgery, sometimes even taking it out on their surgeon. Indeed, one survey found that 40% of plastic surgeons have been threatened by a patient with BDD, whether legally, physically, or both. 

So is everyone who’s undergone cosmetic surgery or considered breast implants or a nose job doomed to be a neurotic, unhappy mess? Not at all. Which brings us to Conclusion #3: 

Conclusion #3: Yes, cosmetic surgery will make me happier, plus the boost will stand the test of time.

In a 180-degree turnaround from the previous studies, a study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science followed a group of about 800 people considering cosmetic surgery. The study compared the 544 people who ultimately went ahead with the surgery to those who didn’t one year later. Unsurprisingly, those who underwent the surgery were more satisfied with the feature that was operated on than those whose noses, breasts, or tummies remained the same.

But more surprisingly, for those who had surgery, many other things improved too, including positive attitude, joy in life, self-esteem, even life satisfaction. Even anxiety improved, in contrast to the previous studies.

The researchers even noted that cosmetic surgery seemed to be an exception to the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is a phenomenon whereby major life events have surprisingly short-term effects on happiness. For instance, people who have good things happen, like winning the lottery, or bad things, like becoming paraplegic, go through a period of adjustment but generally settle back into their own personal happiness-as-usual set point no matter what occurred. 

Therefore, one would think that after the lifted face or thinner thighs, your happiness would sink back to wherever it hovered before. Not so, according to this study. The researchers hypothesized that positive “embodied changes” like cosmetic surgery might produce more permanent psychological change than “malleable” changes like a new relationship or a move.

Conclusion #4: Cosmetic surgery may not make me happier, but it will take away one of my problems.

This follows the Jay-Z ninety-nine problems philosophy: after surgery, you’ll still have problems, but hating your muffin top won’t be one.

The stereotype of people who get cosmetic surgery is that of shallow, insecure types who are obsessed with their looks. They’re thought to be off the charts on something called body image investment, which is defining yourself and your self-worth by your physical appearance and how far you’ll go to uphold it.

Satisfaction with a procedure and overall happiness are completely different things.

Interestingly, in an exploratory analysis in the same Clinical Psychological Science study, body image investment decreased in those that had surgery, indicating that once their protruding ears or saggy neck was a non-issue, they became less preoccupied with and invested in their looks.

When you think about it, this makes sense—once a need is met, it’s not a need anymore. It’s the same reason why people who are naturally slim don’t often think about their weight, or men with a full head of hair don’t think about their hairline. And if you don’t spend time thinking about it or comparing yourself to others, you might conclude—mistakenly or not—that it’s not important to you.

To wrap it all up, will cosmetic surgery make you happier? The answer is: maybe. Most people are satisfied with the outcome of their surgery. But satisfaction with a procedure and overall happiness are completely different things. Cosmetic surgery will likely make you more satisfied with your tummy or your eyelids, but may or may not extend beyond that to whatever else you don’t like about your life. All in all, don’t rely on it to make your life better, improve your relationships, or make you happy.

After all, even Joan Rivers eventually had enough of plastic surgery, stating, “No more Botox for me: Betty White’s bowels move more than my face.”


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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