How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about perfectionism. In the post, I brought up Hedonic Adaptation which involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s buying a new Mercedes or crashing your new Mercedes, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level. A reader asked that I expound on how I have tried to reset my happiness set point. Reset Your Happiness Set Point

So I’ve tried to reset my “set point” and it turns out there is some science behind it. I think I first became aware of this by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, she chronicles twelve months of changing her approach and raising her happiness set point. By the end of the year she felt like she had a sustained increase in her happiness. In another article called “Making Happiness Last” by Katherine Jacobs Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky, they posit it is possible to reverse the effects of the hedonic adaptation. So here is some advice:

  •      Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal. All the authors recommended this and studies have shown that this has a positive effect. I have had a gratitude journal for over 5 years. I have varied it from writing actual paragraphs, to four bullets to my current style which is just to list events and names that had a positive impact on me or I had a positive impact on them. I don’t have a limited number but generally it’s somewhere between 4 and 12. I’m not a big fan of rules, so I just go with what works for me. Count your blessings.
  •      Kindness. Perform random acts of kindness. Apparently it matters if the acts of kindness are varied. It makes sense. If I always buy my team a dozen donuts every Friday, after a while, it has diminishing returns. So you need to shake it up. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee, offer to help the mother with the toddler and infant at the airport, compliment the cashier on her earrings, volunteer at the local triathlon, or bring the mail to your elderly neighbor. I have done all of these. If it becomes rote, it’s not the same impact. Spread kindness.
  •      Intrinsic. The things you do for intrinsic reasons have a much greater impact than those for extrinsic reasons. So I write this blog to inspire others. It brings me joy. If I was writing this blog just to make money, it would not bring me joy. It would be drudgery. Find things that line up with your soul. Paint, sing, play the banjo, run a half marathon, write, cook, bake, raise chickens. Find something that feeds your soul and do it.
  •      Friend. If you can find some way to make your activities social, it will add to your happiness. I have to say that when I walk my dog instead of walking alone, I feel much better. Cooking with my son is more fun than cooking solo. Finding or making a friend while volunteering at a triathlon will multiply the results and the impact is tremendous. All these measures stave off the hedonic adaptation and keep your set point higher.
  •      Perspective. It’s important to remember where you started. Gretchen Rubin had a checklist where she kept track of what she did and didn’t do every day. I tried this but I just couldn’t work it into my routine. But I do remember where I started. Three years ago when I started this blog, I felt self-conscious, overwhelmed and resentful. Working on resetting my set point has made me happier and, I think, helped me live in the present. If you just look back a week, there may not be a big difference but when you look back to where you started, you will be able to see that your set point has changed and is much higher. So start now. Record or journal where you are today. A year from now, look back and see how far you have come.
  •      Self. It’s important that you are doing this for yourself. So don’t go pick up some paint and an easel because I or anyone else told you to. It won’t have the same effect. What is missing in your life? What’s not there right now that you want to have there? Only you can answer that. Maybe you want to raise goldfish or have always wanted to make homemade gnocchi or want to write a book or play the oboe. Whatever it is. Go do it. For you and you alone.
  •     Aware. You need to be aware of the strides you have made. I have the evidence of 154 blog posts (wow that’s a lot!). Studies have shown that if you can appreciate the changes you’ve made, you are keeping Hedonic adaptation at bay or keeping your set point higher. I know that in general, I have a more optimistic view of life. I know that stress and conflict roll off me more easily. I appreciate that my happiness set point is higher. Acknowledge the changes you have made.
  •     Help. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to get help. I think the biggest advantage a coach or therapist brings is the space to reflect and create insight. To see where you have come from and all that is possible. We get so caught up in striving that having someone give you the space to just stop and think is such a relief. You may be able to find this in a friend or partner but having an outside, unattached, viewpoint can be life changing.

Happiness can seem elusive if you have had a recent catastrophic event. But even these downward resets in happiness can be overcome with time. Hedonic adaptation eventually will buoy you up. The secret is to keep moving it up or at least maintaining at a new set point


This is another key principle from “The Essential’s of Leadership” developed by Development Dimensions International (DDI), ask for help and encourage involvement.  Sounds simple. But is it? For most, it’s difficult to give up the reins.  Most of us are compensated for being an expert, a technician, highly skilled in creating widgets or leading others.  I think we find it difficult to ask for help when we are supposed to be the go to person.  The answer man.  “Go ask Cathy, she’ll know what to do.”

I’m not suggesting that this is asking for help with bringing in grocery bags or changing the water cooler bottle.  This is more about asking for help and getting involvement on a process, procedure or project.  Maybe it’s asking your child to select a recipe and make it for dinner, having your assistant design a page of a website or putting an ad hoc team together to do some process improvement.   This creates buy in and helps advance everyone’s skills.  The helper gets some mastery in a new area and you get better leadership and delegation skills.  It’s a win-win.

In the book, “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman, one of the five disciplines of a Multiplier is being The Liberator. The leader that liberates is one who “releases others by restraining yourself.” This can be difficult when most people assume that the highest ranking person in the room is going to make the decision.  Time to sit on your hands and let your child, coworker or partner, flourish.

So how do you get on board?  Here are some steps:

1. Let go.  It’s time to let go.  I know it’s easier to do it yourself.  It’s faster.  More efficient.  Saves time, money and (sometimes) aggravation.  In the long run, it will pay dividends.  One of the hardest steps as a parent was to let my child cut an onion.  Handing a child a sharp cutting blade and a round slippery peeled onion sounded like a formula for disaster.  I had to let go.  If they cut off their finger, we’ll go to the emergency room (I’m happy to say it didn’t happen with either child).  How are they ever going to learn?  The bonus is, I’m not the only one who can chop onions.

2. Drop assumptions.  Unless you are clairvoyant, you don’t know what is really going to happen. Your assistant may have totally botched the last spreadsheet you delegated to him but, hey…he probably learned something and will do just great this time.  Quit predicting disaster and let them fly.  If they fall on their face, they will have learned something and so will you.

3. Get clear.  Make sure you and your helper  are clear about project parameters, deadlines and expectations.  If you tell your coworker that we need a budget for the fund raising project, make sure you explain how to develop the budget, when it’s due and any expectations for the format.  It’s not a good idea to send them off in the dark and hope for the best.  Clearly delegate for the best outcome.

4. Be available.  Once you have delegated, be available for course corrections.  I once asked my daughter to make macaroni and cheese while I attended an evening meeting.  The box asked for 1/4 cup of milk.  Somehow my eleven-year-old thought that meant 4 cups of milk.  The end result was a milky cheesy macaroni soup.  I had not been available to answer questions.  If you can’t be available, it may not be the right time to delegate.

5. Accept.  Be prepared to accept any outcome.  The results might be great or they may be a disaster.  Give encouraging feedback about the results regardless of the outcome.  A colleague of mine would say this is “pumping sunshine.” I’d like to think it’s encouraging their mastery.  I’m not suggesting that you gloss over errors that were made.  My daughter now knows the difference between a 1/4 cup and 4 cups (and we didn’t eat the macaroni).  Better luck next time. At least she tried and now, at nineteen, she can cook on her own.  Accept the results and encourage them to continue.

I realize that there may be things that are beyond someone’s abilities.  If it’s too much of a stretch, set realistic expectations.  My daughter won’t be making a turducken anytime soon.  Heck, that’s beyond my skills.  The important thing is to empower those around you and watch them blossom.

How do you encourage involvement?