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.
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