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Your Set Point for Happiness

How flying coach provides a lesson in happiness.

Have you ever boarded a plane and as you headed to your coach seat, you first walked through business class? Let's explore what this experience can teach us about happiness.

Next time you’re flying coach, perform this simple experiment: As you walk past passengers seated in their big fluffy business class seats, check out the expressions on their faces. Does every single one of them have a big smile as they embrace flying in luxury?

As a professional observer of human behavior, I’ve done this experiment countless times, and the answer I come up with every time is the same: They don’t look any happier than the other passengers. So what does this have to do with happiness and bringing about more of it in our lives?

The Set Point for Happiness

We humans are creatures of habit. We are remarkably resilient and have an extraordinary ability to adapt to our surroundings. When it comes to our sense of well-being, we have something called a set point for happiness.

The set point for happiness is a psychological term that describes our general level of happiness. Each of us has a different set point—some have a high set point, meaning we are mostly happy; some have a low set point, meaning we are mostly unhappy; while others fall somewhere in between. Our set point for happiness is based on our genetics and conditioning. While we may have emotional ups and downs throughout our lives, these are temporary. No matter what life throws at us, over time, our happiness bounces back to the same set point.

This is pretty amazing when you think about all the circumstances that can lead to the same set point. For instance, you can win the lottery, and despite the short-term elation you experience, you’ll eventually revert back to your set point. So if you’re set point for happiness is low, the bright skies after a lottery win will turn back to dark clouds. (Multiple studies have consistently proven this is the case.)

Then there’s the other extreme. You can lose your ability to walk after a terrible car accident. This may plunge you into depression at first. But if your set point for happiness is high, then you’ll eventually experience happiness again even though you’re wheelchair-bound for life.

Allow me to provide another example: In this country, we value education. Schools like Harvard and Stanford are the dream universities for young people across the nation. But if a student aspires to enroll in top schools thinking, “I’ll be so happy when I receive my I acceptance letter,” any happiness will be short-lived.

For proof, you can perform an experiment similar to the airplane one. Visit any university that has an amazing reputation. Are all the students walking across campus smiling, laughing, and exhibiting happiness? Does their level of happiness exceed that of students attending less prestigious schools?

Do Goals Matter?

I’m not recommending you drop any ambitious plans, whether it be to work hard so you can afford a business class ticket or attend a top university. By all means, set your goals high. But if the reason you’ve set a particular external goal is that you want to be happier, then your efforts may be better spent elsewhere. Where is that?

The plane passenger and college student examples demonstrate a fundamental aspect of happiness that is often overlooked: Long-term happiness is rooted in internal circumstances, not external ones.

If boosting your set point for happiness interests you, then doing so is an inside job. This is empowering because it puts your happiness in your control.

Bring Awareness Into Your Life

By using your set point of happiness as a guide, you can take steps right away to increase happiness. One way to do this is to focus on happiness right now. What can you do in the present to bring more internal happiness? Remember anything external is temporary. So I’m not recommending you say, “If I hop on Amazon and buy something right now, I’ll feel great!”

I’m a big believer in awareness. A major part of my job as a licensed clinical psychologist is to help my clients identify the sources of their discontent.

In your case, I recommend you reflect on your daily habits and behaviors. This includes what you consume physically and mentally. For instance, if you’re eating fast food several times a week and binge-watching the latest dystopian series streaming on the internet, these habits will definitely hold you back from physical and mental wellness. Or if the topic of conversation among your friends and family revolves around gossip and putting others down, this will affect your self-talk throughout the day.

So instead of sitting in front of the TV for hours, perhaps you can take a walk outside and watch the sunset. Or rather than join in on a negative conversation, change the subject and talk about something positive or politely exit the talk completely.

Reflect on the habits and behaviors in your life and assess whether they encourage or discourage your internal sense of well-being. As I tell my clients, “Everything matters.” Every action—small and big—you take throughout your day will affect you.

Lastly, meditation is one of the most effective ways to bring about more self-awareness. By investing a few minutes a day in silence, you’ll be investing in your happiness. Think of meditation as a self-diagnostic test that helps you check in to see how you’re feeling.

Happiness Is in Your Hands

While life throws at us countless circumstances outside of our control, we have innumerable ones within our control. Determine what habits and behaviors you can change. Take a hold of what you can control in order to bring about more happiness in your life. Over time, and with subtle changes as well as big ones, you’ll see how your set point for happiness is in your hands.

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