How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about perfectionism. In the post, I brought up Hedonic Adaptation which involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s buying a new Mercedes or crashing your new Mercedes, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level. A reader asked that I expound on how I have tried to reset my happiness set point. Reset Your Happiness Set Point

So I’ve tried to reset my “set point” and it turns out there is some science behind it. I think I first became aware of this by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, she chronicles twelve months of changing her approach and raising her happiness set point. By the end of the year she felt like she had a sustained increase in her happiness. In another article called “Making Happiness Last” by Katherine Jacobs Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky, they posit it is possible to reverse the effects of the hedonic adaptation. So here is some advice:

  •      Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal. All the authors recommended this and studies have shown that this has a positive effect. I have had a gratitude journal for over 5 years. I have varied it from writing actual paragraphs, to four bullets to my current style which is just to list events and names that had a positive impact on me or I had a positive impact on them. I don’t have a limited number but generally it’s somewhere between 4 and 12. I’m not a big fan of rules, so I just go with what works for me. Count your blessings.
  •      Kindness. Perform random acts of kindness. Apparently it matters if the acts of kindness are varied. It makes sense. If I always buy my team a dozen donuts every Friday, after a while, it has diminishing returns. So you need to shake it up. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee, offer to help the mother with the toddler and infant at the airport, compliment the cashier on her earrings, volunteer at the local triathlon, or bring the mail to your elderly neighbor. I have done all of these. If it becomes rote, it’s not the same impact. Spread kindness.
  •      Intrinsic. The things you do for intrinsic reasons have a much greater impact than those for extrinsic reasons. So I write this blog to inspire others. It brings me joy. If I was writing this blog just to make money, it would not bring me joy. It would be drudgery. Find things that line up with your soul. Paint, sing, play the banjo, run a half marathon, write, cook, bake, raise chickens. Find something that feeds your soul and do it.
  •      Friend. If you can find some way to make your activities social, it will add to your happiness. I have to say that when I walk my dog instead of walking alone, I feel much better. Cooking with my son is more fun than cooking solo. Finding or making a friend while volunteering at a triathlon will multiply the results and the impact is tremendous. All these measures stave off the hedonic adaptation and keep your set point higher.
  •      Perspective. It’s important to remember where you started. Gretchen Rubin had a checklist where she kept track of what she did and didn’t do every day. I tried this but I just couldn’t work it into my routine. But I do remember where I started. Three years ago when I started this blog, I felt self-conscious, overwhelmed and resentful. Working on resetting my set point has made me happier and, I think, helped me live in the present. If you just look back a week, there may not be a big difference but when you look back to where you started, you will be able to see that your set point has changed and is much higher. So start now. Record or journal where you are today. A year from now, look back and see how far you have come.
  •      Self. It’s important that you are doing this for yourself. So don’t go pick up some paint and an easel because I or anyone else told you to. It won’t have the same effect. What is missing in your life? What’s not there right now that you want to have there? Only you can answer that. Maybe you want to raise goldfish or have always wanted to make homemade gnocchi or want to write a book or play the oboe. Whatever it is. Go do it. For you and you alone.
  •     Aware. You need to be aware of the strides you have made. I have the evidence of 154 blog posts (wow that’s a lot!). Studies have shown that if you can appreciate the changes you’ve made, you are keeping Hedonic adaptation at bay or keeping your set point higher. I know that in general, I have a more optimistic view of life. I know that stress and conflict roll off me more easily. I appreciate that my happiness set point is higher. Acknowledge the changes you have made.
  •     Help. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to get help. I think the biggest advantage a coach or therapist brings is the space to reflect and create insight. To see where you have come from and all that is possible. We get so caught up in striving that having someone give you the space to just stop and think is such a relief. You may be able to find this in a friend or partner but having an outside, unattached, viewpoint can be life changing.

Happiness can seem elusive if you have had a recent catastrophic event. But even these downward resets in happiness can be overcome with time. Hedonic adaptation eventually will buoy you up. The secret is to keep moving it up or at least maintaining at a new set point

Every perfectionist should focus on these 7 things.

I see so many of my clients get wrapped up with perfection. I have been guilty of constantly striving for perfection myself. I have measured my ability to be happy based on whether or not: I’m the perfect weight, I have the perfect job or I own the perfect house. I’ll warn you right now, you will never, ever, get to THERE. You never arrive at perfection so quit putting off your happiness until you get THERE. THERE is mythical. No one ever gets THERE.

I won’t deny that there are peaks along the way; those moments we refer to as the milestones of life – falling in love, getting married, job promotions, graduations and births. But invariably we slide right back to our happiness set point within 6 months. Generally, hedonic adaptation involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s hitting the lottery or having a spinal cord injury, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level.

The key is to change your set point, boost it; change the landscape. I’ve been working on this for the last year or so. It’s like setting your thermostat up one degree at a time. It’s a slow process but I think it is actually working.imperfect

Seeing this photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa prompted this post. It took over 344 years to build the tower and it was already leaning when they put on the second story. So, even though it was less than perfect, they kept at it. It is a nice metaphor. Embrace the lean and keep going. Keep building; one stone at a time.

So if you are a perfectionist (and most of us are) here are the 7 things to embrace the lean:

1. Accept. Obviously, the town and builders of Pisa accepted the lean. In fact, they have said they would rather see the tower topple than fix the lean. There is peace in acceptance. Where are you leaning right now? I’m not at my ideal weight. I’m still paying for student loans from my Master’s degree and, apparently, I’m not getting any younger. This is all true but getting on the scale in the morning cannot be the barometer of how I will feel all day. A pound up or a pound down. Hmmm. Interesting. One more data point. It’s still going to be a great day. Accept what is.

2. Gratitude. I’ve been writing a gratitude journal for over three years. Every evening I write in it before I go to sleep. Usually it’s anywhere from four to ten names of people (or my dog) that I am grateful for. I’m not sure why I focus on people who had an impact on me during the day, it may have to do with how involved I have been with people in my career. You can write anything you want whether it’s the blue sky, the much needed rain or the roof over your head. Counting your blessings helps you focus on what is right with your world. This has had a huge impact on me. It keeps my glass half full. Focus on what you are grateful for.

3. Beauty. Beauty is everywhere. In the middle of winter it’s easy to see the outside world as cold and barren; leafless trees and arctic winds can seem ugly. But it’s all in how you look at it. A bracing wind makes me feel every part of my body. Barren trees make the squirrels, deer and birds much more apparent and reliant on us. There is the beauty of being snuggled up in bed when the wind is howling outside whether it’s with a good book, on the phone with a good friend or sleep. There is a beauty of slowing down to some degree with the seasons. And there is the truth that the beauty of the tower is the lean. Seek out the lean and the hidden beauty.

4. Reflection. Reflect on what you have accomplished. Most of the reason that coaching is so effective is that you have an outside person ask you to take stock in what you have done. We spend so much of our time thinking about what we haven’t done. Instead we need to think about all that we have done. I walked today, I made dinner, I worked, I wrote, I spent time with my dog, I finally sent that overdue email, I did laundry and so on. I have clients who put off our appointment because they feel like they didn’t get any action items done. When we end up meeting, even if they are resistant, they find out that they’ve done more than half their action items. They were just focusing on what they hadn’t done. Take time to reflect on what you have done and give yourself credit.

5. Reframe. Context is everything. Our perception of what we are achieving is completely in our own heads. We are the bellwether, not anyone else. Or we can be at the hands of “What will the public think or judge?” So, if you live in an expensive neighborhood, your Hyundai will never be good enough yet if you drive through a less expensive neighborhood, it might be the most coveted car on the block. I love a cartoon that was going around on Facebook that said “I wish I was as fat as when I thought I was fat”. Reframe and be OK with right now.

6. Optimalist. As written in an article by James Woodworth, ” Optimalists accept that life can be tough and painful at times. Their realism enables them to build resilience and the ability to cope with the difficulties life presents them.” This is the opposite of a perfectionist. Perfectionists are constantly disappointed by falling short as well as by every failure. They dwell on every shortcoming and they never push the envelope. Optimalists don’t fear what they might lose. They believe in the gain. The folks in Pisa didn’t worry about the tower tumbling down. Push the envelope and be an Optimalist.

7. Moment. Be in the moment. Be present. Perfectionists are constantly thinking about “what if” and are overly busy protecting their image and the “what ifs”. When you are doing this, you are missing what is in front of you. Enjoy what you’re looking at – how the sun hit that tree at just the right angle, or the taste of the coffee or the feel of the sheets. It’s your life; be there for it. Be here. Right now. Feel the chair. Feel your breath. Listen to the buzz of the room. This moment; right now.

Much like the folks of Pisa, this all takes patience. Nothing is accomplished overnight. Congratulate yourself with each small step. If you take a step back, so what, brush it off and know that you are on the right path. An imperfect path.