This is a guest post from Hannah Kane.
I consider myself a happy person. I have bad days, of course, but in general, when I check in with myself to see how I’m doing, I typically find that I feel pretty good. Positive psychologists might say that I have a high “happiness set point,” which is the default level of happiness that a person tends to hover around.
Scientists have been studying this phenomenon since the 1970s when the term “hedonic adaptation” was coined to refer to people’s tendency to have a relatively stable level of happiness, despite the good and bad things that happen to them. How’s this for counter-intuitive? An unhappy person is likely to end up unhappy again even after winning the lottery. And a generally happy person has a good chance of staying happy even after an accident leaves them paralyzed.
This might sound like bad news for people with a low happiness set point. Fortunately, studies show that our happiness set point is malleable, and we can increase our overall level of happiness with a little bit of effort and attention. Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has the awesome job of studying happiness, says that while 50% of our happiness is genetic, and 10% is related to life circumstances beyond our control, up to 40% of our happiness is determined by our own actions and beliefs.
So, how do we do it? How do we raise our default levels of happiness?
Anyone who watches Oprah will recognize this one, but the power of gratitude is more than just intuitive. It’s also been demonstrated in several scientific studies. Taking time to write down three things you’re grateful for each week has been shown to lead to increased levels of happiness over the long term. And expressing gratitude to others leads to stronger social ties, an essential ingredient for happiness.
Share happy events.
In the book Curious?, author Todd Kashdan writes, “When we share our experiences with people who are important to us, the impact of their interest is profound.” When we share a happy experience with others, we’re essentially crystallizing that experience in our own memory, allowing us to revisit it again and again, each time getting a hit of happiness. Related tip: to help boost the happiness of others, be a good listener. An unenthusiastic response to someone else’s happy news can dampen their experience.
This one is definitely my weakness. I have a terrible habit of dwelling on negative experiences, letting them roll around in my mind when I should be moving on to other things. The truth is, ruminating rarely helps, so developing the skill of self-distraction is key to sustaining higher levels of happiness. I’ve found that there are three things that I can reliably do to distract myself and then successfully move on: play my guitar and sing, bake something, or watch an episode of Parks and Recreation (it’s so good!). I’ve found that it’s often not helpful to talk to a friend, because I’ll probably just use it as an excuse for some co-ruminating! (Another form of ruminating is holding a grudge, so forgiving someone can lead to a substantial increase in happiness.)
Take care of yourself.
Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly are both linked to happiness. I won’t say any more, because we all know the zillion other benefits to taking care of our physical selves! The point is, not only is it good for your body, it’s also good for your mind.
Smiling even without a reason and laughing even when nothing’s funny can create feelings of genuine happiness. Develop a habit of smiling when you greet people, and laughing heartily in public even if people give you funny looks. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, uses “Act the way you want to feel” as one of her personal commandments. I like it, too.
Anyone who feels they have a low happiness set point should take comfort in the fact that it’s malleable. All of the above ideas are things that can be practiced until they become habit. And once they’re habitual, you may find your default happiness level is higher. This not only sets you up to better savor life’s wonderful moments, but it also helps you to weather life’s many storms.
The idea that a higher happiness set point is a means of self-defense for when things get rough is captured in this astute quote from Shimon Edelman’s lovely little book, The Happiness of Pursuit:
“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.”
That’s good advice.
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If Hannah could go back to college, she’d major in Theme Parties and Scavenger Hunts with a minor in Board Games, since those are the things she likes best. Hannah has 12 years of theme party and scavenger hunt planning experience, and plays a mean game of Bananagrams. Find her on her blog, Twitter, and Facebook.