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Escape the hedonic treadmill: How positive psychology can increase your base happiness

Are you prone to view life as glass-half-empty? If so, don’t let it drag you down: Your day-to-day happiness level is something that was, in large part, set early in life. Psychologists refer to this baseline happiness level as your hedonic set point, and studies on twins suggest that genetics are as much as 50 percent responsible for whether you lean toward merry or gloomy—or slightly above neutral, as most people do.
What’s interesting about the hedonic set point is that we generally return to it no matter what happens to us. For example, even after we experience life-changing events, like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, we generally return to our unique baseline happiness level. It’s a bit counterintuitive. You might think that something like winning tons of money would increase your happiness for good. But the hedonic treadmill theory points out that as certain factors in your life change, so do your expectations. Eventually, you adapt and return to baseline.
So, can we escape the hedonic treadmill, or are we forever bound to our hedonic set points? Positive psychology, true to its name, offers hope. In recent years, studies have found that some people were able to boost their baseline happiness levels by up to two standard deviations or more. So, you’re not necessarily “fixed” to a hedonic set point, but lifting that happiness bar takes some effort.

Escape the hedonic treadmill

Cultivating positive thoughts and emotions can help you function optimally. But positive psychology doesn’t simply advocate sitting around and reminiscing about good memories, or imagining ideal scenarios (though these can’t hurt). Rather, you might consider more active approaches that, although they require effort, are most likely to lead to lasting increases in happiness.
One strategy is the PERMA model, developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman. The model focuses on five key areas:

  1. Positive Emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishments

You can increase positive emotions in simple ways, such as by setting aside time to do things you enjoy, savoring simple pleasures, and meditating regularly—specifically through loving-kindness meditation. But one of the most effective ways to boost positive emotions is a bit less obvious: expressing gratitude. Studies suggest that giving thanks—such as by praying, writing in a journal or writing a thank-you note—immediately increases individuals’ happiness because it reframes your focus on what you have as opposed to what you think you lack. 
Engagement means immersing yourself in a goal-oriented activity to the point where you lose track of time and even a sense of self. You’ve probably heard this concept referred to as “flow”. Studies suggest that flow states downregulate the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for self-conscious reflection, and encourage other parts of the brain to communicate with each other in novel ways. Other research shows that flow states release neurochemicals, including dopamine, that boost our performance and elicit positive emotions. If you tend to your lose yourself in a certain (healthy) activity, try to do it more often.
Relationships are integral to happiness. Humans are social animals, and we thrive when we have a strong social network and intimate relationships in which we can experience joy, collaboration, help in troubling times, and physical contact. In addition to emotional health, relationships can also affect your physical health, and even your lifespan. So, consider putting in work to maintain the relationships in your life, and to focus on spending time with positive people. And remember, even though loneliness and isolation are unfortunately common in the digital age, there are ways to meet new people, from Meetup groups to cooking classes. It just takes a bit of effort.
A sense of meaning can get you through the inevitable valleys of life. Friederich Nietzsche said “If you know the why, you can live any how.” In other words, life is tough and you’re going to suffer tragedies, but you’ll be able to withstand anything if you know you have a worthy reason for living. This is a founding principle of logotherapy, created by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
After Frankl survived the holocaust, he wrote about how the people who tended to survive the death camps weren’t necessarily the strongest, but those who knew they had a clear purpose in life. Meaning is something you have to find on your own, but it generally involves connecting to something greater than yourself—whether it’s religion, art, family, craft or whatever brings you purpose.
Striving toward meaningful goals not only helps to give life meaning, but it also brings us a sense of accomplishment, particularly when we set enough short-term goals along the path toward our long-term ones. The reason is that working toward goals activates the reward centers in your brain. So, set short-, medium- and long-term goals, and allow time to reward yourself when you accomplish them. But also beware of the arrival fallacy, which describes our tendency to expect drastic improvements to our lives upon finally accomplishing a goal, only to feel let down. Instead, learn to enjoy the process of working toward positive goals that give your life meaning.
Learn more strategies to better your health and wellness with video lessons ‘For You’ and ‘For Business’ from Big Think+. You can sign up for yourself right now, or request a demo for your organization.

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