With the advent of positive psychology in the 1990s and its focus on the conditions that “make life most worth living” for humans, a wholly new understanding of the fickle concept of happiness emerged.
Our experience of happiness, along with other components of one’s emotional state, is naturally subject to much fluctuation. Certain events bring about sublime joy, while others provoke rancor or sorrow. In the words of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Despite this apparent instability, once these guests depart or we grow accustomed to their presence, studies in positive psychology show that humans return to a set point of happiness, somewhat similar to the work of a thermostat to maintain a certain temperature despite environmental deviations.
No matter the high-valence event— winning the lottery, becoming paralyzed in an accident, going through a divorce, experiencing the birth of one’s first child, or losing a job— humans are shown to quickly adapt to their new life circumstances. With time, the initial joy or depression we felt subsides and our subjective sense of well-being regresses to its mean level.
In the literature, this phenomenon is known as the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation. Much like using a treadmill, one may speed up or slow down precipitously, experiencing events that produce happiness or despair, but ultimately end up running in the same place.
Visually, the hedonic treadmill can be plotted as an irregular wave function vacillating around a horizontal axis that signifies one’s baseline level of happiness:
But even to maintain a baseline level of happiness along this treadmill, we implicitly sign up for a Red Queen’s race, in which one doesn’t make progress towards a goal despite attempting earnestly to achieve it. To escape this race and “get somewhere else,” the Red Queen advises Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, “you must run at least twice as fast!”
Thus, should we want to achieve more lasting and stable happiness— thereby outpacing this hedonic treadmill— we must find ways to boost our sense of well-being at baseline.
The kicker is that research suggests as much as 80 percent of the observed variance in one’s long-term sense of well-being is heritable and not borne out of life experiences. Particular environmental circumstances, such as one’s income, marital status, and education level, may be attributed to just eight to twenty percent of the variance in happiness.
Taken together, these findings seem to align with the concept of hedonic adaptation. In spite of apparently drastic events, any deviations in one’s happiness are but transient in face of genetic predisposition.
As such, each Internet shopping spree, 200-like Instagram post, or Caribbean cruise may have only a marginal effect on your long-term happiness.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jon Haidt touches on the stark conclusion drawn from these noted sources of happiness:
In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness set point—your brain’s default level of happiness—which was determined largely by your genes.
While our genetic data may very well have an outsized effect on determining our enduring happiness, particular conditions to which those genes are exposed could also bring about influential epigenetic changes, in turn bolstering our sense of well-being.
Let’s explore exactly what those conditions entail.
Picking Up the Pace
Haidt builds on decades of research in The Happiness Hypothesis and proposes several steps we can take to shift our happiness set point. Here, I supplement a few of his ideas with others shown to be effective:
- Gratitude Journaling
- “Greatest Hits”
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Mood Tracking
Meditation has been associated with higher levels of happiness in a number of studies (Campos et al., 2016; Smith et al., 1995; Choi and Karremans, 2012; Dambrun, 2016) and may also aid in the treatment of depression and some psychiatric disorders.
Meditation can be succinctly defined as a “conscious attempt to focus attention in a non-analytical way.” A heightened level of awareness is brought to the on-going narrative and stream of thoughts that dominate our consciousness. With practice, the errant strands that fester in one’s mind about tomorrow’s plans or the transgressions of others abate instead of linger.
Depending on the type of meditation performed, focus is placed on observing these thoughts, controlling the breath (vipassana meditation), calling to mind a relaxing image, or following a guided practice.
In loving-kindness meditation (LKM), an individual concentrates on creating warm feelings and thoughts, and then directing them towards others. One first visualizes a loved one smiling or laughing and wishes for their continued well-being. A mantra, such as “I am whole” or “I am loved,” may also be repeated along with this exercise.
As opposed to a conventional diary, in which activities and thoughts may be recorded without much intention, gratitude journaling is the more meaningful practice of noting the variety of circumstances, events, or interactions for which one feels grateful or thankful.
At the start and close of each day, for instance, one might jot down a few sources of gratitude. Here’s a recent example from my own gratitude journal,
- Cooking dinner with my significant other
- Healthy debate on political issues with my mother
- Making others laugh at work
- Steady progress in recovering from my ankle injury
- Having vivid dreams despite not sleeping enough
Other practices include writing a message to someone, living or deceased, to express gratitude for their actions or qualities and incorporating sources of gratitude into a loving-kindness meditation practice.
In addition to bolstering subjective well-being, the habitual expression of gratitude can help to support immune functioning, lower blood pressure, and increase the quality of sleep. Moreover, practicing gratitude may decrease materialism and its subsequent negative effects on well-being.
Savoring is the recognition and enjoyment of momentary positive experiences accompanied by an effort to extend or heighten that satisfaction.
By attending to the particular details of the event and making a conscious attempt to remember them, one’s concerns become narrowed to the present moment and the positive aspects of a fleeting experience.
For instance, one may savor sipping a warm cup of coffee during a snow storm, taking a cool shower on a hot summer day, or reaching the top of a steep hill. Taking a few moments to absorb and reflect on each experience can help to prolong its effect and provide for increases in life satisfaction and well-being.
One may also perform a savoring walk or incorporate these experiences into a gratitude journal entry or a meditation practice.
Akin to the practice of savoring and recording sources of gratitude, another useful exercise is compiling one’s “greatest hits,” a list of the most meaningful events, people, and components of one’s life. Although this catalog may be appended over time, it is not intended to be changed on a daily basis.
Keeping this list easily accessible may help to supplement LKM and gratitude journal, providing reasons to be thankful and individuals towards whom loving kindness can be directed.
A few examples of greatest hits include,
- Talking with a mentor about career paths and finding one that matches your passions and interests
- Finishing your first 5K race and having a deliciously unhealthy meal afterwards
- Meeting your best friend for the first time
- Possessing the ability to read and write, a skill honed over a span of years
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
By helping individuals recognize cognitive distortions, challenge them effectively, and modify their patterns of thinking, CBT may also help to boost happiness.
Of the numerous cognitive distortions that have been identified, the most common include,
Splitting – viewing actions, events, or personality characteristics as a black-and-white dichotomy, without space allocated for the “gray” gradations between these two extremes; e.g. receiving a less-than-perfect grade on an assignment is seen as a complete failure
Overgeneralization – viewing a single negative event as part of a pattern of defeat; words such as “always” or “never” are typically used; e.g. “Things never go my way!” “She always treats me like I don’t exist.”
Emotional Reasoning – viewing negative emotions as proof that something is true, or a reflection of the way things truly are; e.g. “No wants to hear my speech because I am nervous in front of crowds.”
Similar to the meditation apps mentioned above, there are several programs offered in books and on websites that enable one to catch these distortions as they materialize and stomp them out summarily.
As noted above, our emotional states naturally undergo a great deal of variance. At times, the experience is analogous to riding an untrained horse who refuses to yield to your commands in spite of your best efforts.
Tracking the variation in one’s moods can be immensely helpful in uncovering patterns in why they vary and how specific actions, such as meditation, savoring, or practices from CBT, can be used to attenuate those fluctuations.
Rather than merely boosting baseline happiness, the goal here is to prevent wild jumps between peaks and troughs in well-being.
Similar to gratitude journaling, mood tracking is the frequent practice of charting one’s present emotional state, identifying the sources of those emotions and feelings, and working to bring about a more positive mood.
One may opt to simply use a writing utensil and paper to track moods or utilize a smartphone app. (Pacifica is perhaps the best I’ve seen.)
Homo sapiens is one of the only species identified by evolutionary biologists and psychologists as “ultra-social,” able to live in large cooperative groups of hundreds to thousands of organisms and coordinate a complex division of labor that allows for the functioning of society. (The other ultra-social species are termites, naked mole rats, and those that comprise the order hymenoptera.)
This sociability helps to explain why the most salient condition for predicting subjective well-being in humans is the strength and the closeness of one’s relationships to others. In other words, the degree to which we love and feel connected to others may be an enormous precondition for a heightened happiness set point.
The more an individual is surrounded by happy people, the more likely they are to become happy themselves. What ultimately matters most within these connections may be their quality, rather than the quantity of relationships, and the presence of reciprocal trust and compassion between individuals.
Thus, in the process of cultivating an excellent meditation practice, performing gratitude journaling twice daily, tracking moods, and using CBT, meaningful social relationships should not be neglected.
Even for those who, like me, lean towards introversion, important connections and a sense of community can be forged through measured involvement in service work, book clubs, and sports, in addition to meet-ups based on shared interests facilitated by websites and apps.
Although I have detailed a number of different strategies that may help to increase one’s happiness set point, I advise against implementing multiple practices at once.
Instead, aim to initially make just one of these activities a staple of your lifestyle. For instance, work towards practicing gratitude journaling for about three to four weeks before starting to perform loving-kindness meditation.
Above all, try not to create a significant concern out of attempting to boost your happiness. Overburdening yourself with these various modalities might make you ironically unhappy and defeat the purpose of their use.
Here’s to you and your continued happiness!