The Fast Food Guide to Happiness

Happiness is an inside job.

Posted Aug 27, 2017

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When I was in graduate school, I was the stereotypical starving student. While I had a part-time job, my living expenses left with me with nearly nothing at the end of the month. But even on my shoestring budget, I made room for a splurge—my reward for working hard both in class and in my low-wage job. I’d eat at the local Burger King. And it was the best meal I’d had all month.

Time has passed since grad school. I’ve become established in my career, and my starving student years are long behind me. So when I want to enjoy a once-in-a while amazing meal, Burger King no longer makes the top of my list.

While I may pick a more upmarket restaurant, the excitement I had back then spending a few bucks was just as exciting as it was years later, at a fancier restaurant. In other words, the experience was just as good then as it is today. In this post, we’ll explore the scientific research behind why this is the case, and how understanding why can actually increase happiness.

The set point for happiness is a psychological term that describes our general level of well-being. Each person has a different set point. Research has shown that while we may have emotional ups and downs, these are temporary. Over time, our general trend line for happiness returns to the same set point. This describes why Burger King back then made me just as happy as an expensive restaurant may do today.

So if our set point for happiness is high and we experience a major tragedy, let’s say we lose a limb in a car accident, we may plunge into despair in the short term, but over the long term we return to our high set point.

Or if our set point for happiness is low, and we experience a major accomplishment, let’s say we win the lottery, we may be elated over the short-term, but over the long term we return to our low set point.

Imagine we’re depressed because we haven’t found our soul mate. After years and years of searching, we finally meet our life partner. We marry that person and we are riding high on a cloud of happiness. But over time, that cloud of joy begins to dissipate. We find ourselves back to our low point of happiness. Despite our external circumstances changing (finding the love of our life), our internal set point for happiness remains the same.

While this may sound like bad news at first, understanding this can be one of the most important discoveries we can make about ourselves.

Think of all the striving we do in this country. Everyday we’re bombarded with advertisements that tell us we need to make more money, we need to lose weight, we need to buy a new car, we need to find romance, we need to protect our investments…the list is endless and the message is the same: Once we have (you fill in the blank), we will be happier. Companies spend literally billions of dollars on convincing us that we’ll be happier by buying their stuff because they know their ads work.  

How much time do we spend thinking about everything in life we want more of because we believe we’ll be happier as a result? The set point of happiness tells us that nothing we acquire externally will move our happiness up or down over the long term. In other words, happiness is an inside job.

Imagine how much time and money we could save if we no longer bought into what we’ve been told since birth about happiness and fulfillment. Rather than seek it externally, which is truly tricky to avoid in our consumer-based society, we would look within.

What I’m not suggesting is that you should stop buying things, investing in relationships, or striving to reach goals. What I am saying is that if you equate any of these with being happier, science tells us that you’re in for a big disappointment.

So go ahead and buy the new car (if you can afford it), work toward having amazing relationships, and set high goals for yourself. But rather than participate in these activities because you want to be happier in the future, seek happiness now. Make healthy decisions that will allow you to enjoy life just as it is, in this moment, rather than defer happiness to some future point in time after X, Y, or Z happens.

One healthy decision I’m a strong advocate of is meditation. If you’re looking to actually move your set point of happiness needle up, then a daily meditation practice is a worthwhile investment.

In fact, you’ll find extensive scientific research demonstrating the changes in the brains of long time meditators. In study after study, you’ll find evidence showing how meditation decreases stress and anxiety and increases happiness and well-being. Best of all, it’s free and available to anyone at anytime.

By understanding the significance of the set point of happiness, you’re armed with information that can lead to dramatic self-transformation. While the bad news is you’ll never find happiness externally, the fantastic news is you have all the tools within, right now.