The other day I started reading a new book, Start Here, Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. I saw this book at the library and started reading it, not expecting to gain too much insight from it.
As I read the early chapters, I came across a section that blew me away. It referenced the Tao Te Ching and talked about many themes of happiness and wellness that I have explored, but did so in an amazingly straightforward and insightful way. Suddenly a lot of different areas of exploration in my personal wellness journey came together in a new, yet familiar way.
Our Happiness Set Point
The authors, Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD started out by explaining a concept called the happiness set point. This is the point at which most of us find ourselves on a regular basis. They say, “the set point is the unique spot that each of us occupies on the spectrum of life satisfaction: high, low, or somewhere in between. Think of it as your default location on the spectrum of wellbeing.”
The set point is more or less a constant in most people’s lives. Yes we all have good and bad days that push away from this set point, but over time we all return to roughly the same set point.
This explains why after a tragic loss people tend to return to roughly the same level of happiness and life satisfaction as they did before the incident. It also explains why lottery winners return to their previous state of happiness or unhappiness after a few months.
Most of us don’t see this. We assume all our troubles will fade if we win the lottery. Suddenly the money problems we have will disappear and we will be left with complete happiness, joy, and freedom to do whatever we want. But studying lottery winners shows that this isn’t the case.
I’ve noticed a similar pattern when I take numerous days off of work in a row. At first it is great. I have freedom to do whatever I want. But after a few days I start to miss the structure and routine that I have created. Instead of growing happier and happier with each day off, I tend to return to my normal happiness set point. The high of knowing I can do whatever I want is replaced with a realization that without the positive routines I miss out on the benefits that these offer.
All of the ups and downs of life seem to be the main factor for our happiness but studying this concept of a happiness set point challenges that belief. It shows that the ups and downs all occur but they don’t actually change our overall happiness.
How Do We Form Our Happiness Set Point?
While we all have a happiness set point, it is interesting to hear the authors explain how this happiness set point forms and how we have control over it. We can change it, but most people have no idea it even exists so they completely focus on the wrong areas. They solely look to increase the number of good events in our lives and decrease the number of bad events in our life.
Instead of trying to increase pleasure and decrease pain, the happiness set point is more a factor of our habitual patterns of thought. How we think determines our happiness set point, not what actually happens to us.
If we are feeling depressed we may think we just need to plan a vacation or buy a new car. But these are never lasting and only provide a short-term spike in happiness followed by a quick return to normal.
If we seek to avoid pain and discomfort we never push ourselves into new experiences that can help us improve and know the world better. If we keep the same habits of thought we will keep repeating what we think and do, which will keep us relatively fixed throughout life.
Then the authors dive into the exact thought patterns that lock our happiness set point in place and make it extremely difficult to change. They explain that we can change our happiness set point but most people never will. The reason is that it will take training and a slow process of changing habits, not any sort of sudden change.
Set Point Forces
The authors explain that there are three set point forces. These forces are what drives our thought patterns and ultimately determines how happy we will be. The forces change the set point and the highs and lows will still happen but ultimately we will settle back into the set point from the three forces and the ways they determine how we think.
The first set point force that they talk about is judgment. This is our tendency to think in terms of categorizing everything as good or bad. We may use words like fast and slow, right and wrong, flexible and rigid but all of these are just ways for us to use the good/bad dichotomy to form assessments of everything.
This has us in a constant state of judgment. It helped us through our evolution to quickly see dangerous environments or a predatory lurking around the corner and quickly decide how to act to avoid that dangerous situation.
Langshur and Klemp say, “For our survival, judgment is a necessary capacity: money = like, disease = bad, stealing = wrong. So it’s natural that, as thoughts, sensations, and emotions arise, the mind instantly begins to judge.”
The problem comes in because most of us are prewired to lean towards the negative. For evolution this helped because it forced us to focus on the threat of a nearby bear instead of being sidetracked by the beautiful sunrise.
But translated to today’s modern life, it means we focus more on the irritating sand in our sandal than on the beautiful ocean in front of us. Or we focus more on the annoying customer request instead of the paycheck we receive by helping enough customers. Or we focus on the dirty dishes in the sink instead of our spouse’s hard work to prepare the meal.
Our perspective tends to favor the bad. We all know optimistic people that always seem to see the brighter side of life. We may assume they are luckier or haven’t had any struggles. In reality it is probably that they tend to see more of the positive than the rest of us.
A while back I was having lunch with an old coworker. He was explaining how horrible it was to be laid off by a past employer. Then he started to talk about how much he loves his current job. I pointed out that the horrible ending to the previous employment was what made the current employment possible and he wouldn’t be working there had he not been let go from the other employer. He looked at me in a confused way. I could tell he had separated the two out and there was no way to show him that getting laid off ended up being a good thing for him.
But whether his layoff was good or bad is just another judgment that we form. We judge it as good or bad. But it isn’t just one, it actually has both good and bad together.
Langshur and Klemp say, “When we judge something to be ‘good,’ attachments naturally arise. We become attached to relationships, good health, thoughts, beliefs, and outcomes. We can even become attached to those things that society judges to be ‘bad’ – smoking, abusing drugs, overeating – because they give us pleasure, at least at first.”
Then the authors explain why the second set point force, attachment, influences our happiness set point. They state, “The problem is that lurking behind every attachment is a desire for some sort of permanence – for the feeling that what we have now or hope to have in the future could last forever… This is the root of the problem. We’re attached to permanence – to clinging to the things we hold most dear – but we live in a world of constant change.”
This is incredibly powerful. We attach to aspects of our lives that we want to keep the same, yet they will inevitably change. This causes worry, fear, depression etc. We worry that the good things will go away. We fear that bad things will come.
Resistance, the third set point force, is the opposite of attachment and is a driving force to get away from what we judge as bad. We resist change when it involves uncertainly (which is usually does) and we resist the thought of something unpleasant happening.
We get too caught up in resisting the idea that something bad could happen to us and we don’t have the perspective to understand that even if something bad happens there will be elements of good within that event.
Change Your Happiness Set Point to be Happier in Life
Hopefully now you can start to see that our patterns of thought ultimately determine how happy we are in life. These habits are ingrained. Regardless of what life events come and go, we remain relatively similar in our thoughts, and therefore, our happiness.
When we want more happiness, we seek out events that provide pleasure or we look for ways to reduce discomfort. We search for events and one-time situations that can immediately change our happiness level. But all we are really doing is just solidifying the habits that we already have. Instead of helping us change how we judge, attach and resist, we quickly judge, attach and resist. The temporary relief further solidifies the pattern.
In order to change our happiness set point we have to start to think differently. This isn’t something that can happen instantaneously. To be effective, we have to focus on slowly changing our habits.
Use the systems and habits approach to increase your happiness set point
This is where the systems and habits approach to improvement can drastically help us. We can start to form systems that help us identify when we follow these thought patterns and then give us tools to slowly start changing those thoughts.
And when we do this over and over and over, we start to form new patterns of thought. These new patterns then form into habits. Over time they start to go into autopilot and raise our happiness set point.
The key to being happier isn’t to avoid discomfort and look for more pleasurable events. It is actually better to instead focus on our habits and the patterns of thought that determine our ultimate happiness set point. To be happier in the long-term, we should work to shift those habits and patterns to align with a more positive and happy mindset.