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May 8, 2012
Breakthrough Model Shows Two Ways To Change Your Happiness Set Point


The sayings “variety is the spice of life” and “happiness isn’t getting what you want, but wanting what you get” seem to have a psychological basis, according to a new study by an MU psychologist who identified two keys to becoming happier and staying that way.


Three powerful happiness tips: 1. Have a Healthy Outlet; 2. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously; and 3. Happiness Must be Shared

Psychologists have long argued that people have a "set point" for happiness. Regardless of what life brings, the set-point theory goes, happiness levels tend to be stable. A big life event could create a boost of joy or a crush of sorrow, but within a few years, people return to a predetermined level of life satisfaction, according to the theory.

“Although the Declaration of Independence upholds the right to pursue happiness, that search can be a never-ending quest,” said Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Previous research shows that an individual’s happiness can increase after major life changes, such as starting a new romantic relationship, but over time happiness tends to return to a previous level. Through our research, we developed a model to help people maintain higher levels of happiness derived from beneficial changes. The model consists of two major components: the need to keep having new and positive life-changing experiences and the need to keep appreciating what you already have and not want more too soon.”

In the recent study, Sheldon, along with co-author Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, first surveyed 481 people about their happiness. Six weeks later participants identified a recent positive change in their lives that had made them happier. Six weeks after that, the psychologists evaluated whether the original happiness boost had lasted.  For some it had, but for most it had not. The psychologists then tested and confirmed their model for predicting whose boost had lasted.

“The majority got used to the change that had made them happy in the first place,” Sheldon said. “They stopped being happy because they kept wanting more and raising their standards, or because they stopped having fresh positive experiences of the change, for example they stopped doing fun things with their new boyfriend and started wishing he was better looking. A few were able to appreciate what they had and to keep having new experiences. In the long term, those people tended to maintain their boost, rather than falling back where they started.”

Due to genetics and other factors, individuals have a certain “set-point” of happiness they normally feel. Some people tend to be bubbly, while others are more somber, though individuals vary in a range around their set-point. Sheldon’s research suggests how people can train themselves to stay at the top of their possible range of happiness.

“A therapist can help a person get from miserable to OK; our study shows how people can take themselves from good to great,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon also noted that the best life changes don’t necessarily equate to new purchases. Although a shiny new possession can boost happiness, that purchase has to be experienced anew every day and appreciated for what it brings to have any lasting effect on happiness.

“The problem with many purchases is that they tend to just sit there,” said Sheldon. “They don’t keep on providing varied positive experiences. Also, relying on material purchases to make us happy can lead to a faster rise in aspirations, like an addiction. Hence, many purchases tend to be only quick fixes. Our model suggests ways to reduce the ‘let down’ from those purchases. For example, if you renovate your house, enjoy it and have many happy experiences in the new environment, but don’t compare your new decor to the Joneses’.”

1. Have a Healthy Outlet

So many of the people in this study seemed to have all their ducks in a row. In their prime years in the 1950’s and 1960’s, they were making big money in powerful careers. They had beautiful families and lived in idyllic neighborhoods. Oddly enough, later in life, many of these fortunate people ended up breaking down mentally and physically. Why? If one didn’t have a healthy outlet for their fears, nerves, and struggles, it was only a matter of time before repressed demons erupted to the surface. The happiest people in this study had a healthy outlet. They were altruistic or had a rich sense of humor. They funneled their issues into sport, “their lust into courtship.”

It’s something important to consider. As the study proves, a human being can get away with sustaining daily nerves, fears, and doubts for a number of years. But ultimately, such a nervous nelly will crack. If you haven’t already, develop an outlet…find a sport, commit to helping others, lighten up, and laugh more often. A wise one said, "A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs, jolted by every pebble in the road."

2. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

This study, as reported in Atlantic Magazine, was summed up beautifully by the journalist Joshua Shenk: “Herein lies the key to a good life--not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid-- but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.”

In other words, one can only carry the burden of a big ego and lots of pride for so long before your proverbial knees will buckle. Don’t take life too seriously. We all have weaknesses. Do you really want to battle your dark side year after year? Or might it just be time to lay down your arms, take a deep breath, and enjoy life. It’s shorter than you think.

3. Happiness Must be Shared

According to the 72 year old study, happiness is real when shared. Those who spent too much alone time ultimately struggled. The happiest subjects in the study were those who sustained meaningful, healthy relationships with friends and family. One can never give enough hugs, say enough "I love you's," and send enough "I miss you's."

Livin' the good life is livin' the moment!

Feel-good factors

So what contributed to long-term happiness? The researchers found several correlations between life choices and life satisfaction:

  • Marry well: The personality traits of partners influenced people's happiness. Neuroticism, or a tendency toward anxiety, emotional instability and depression, was most influential. People who married or partnered with neurotic people were less likely to be happy than people who married non-neurotic types.
  • Focus on the family: People who assigned relatively high value to altruistic and family goals compared with career goals were happier. Women were also happier when their male partners ranked family goals high.
  • Go to church: People who went to church more often were happier, though the study can't determine whether the happiness is related to religious views or to the social circle religious organizations offer.
  • Work, but not too much (or too little): People's happiness matched how well they felt their work hours matched their desired work hours. In other words, people who worked more or fewer hours than they preferred were less happy. Working less or being unemployed was worse than working too much, presumably because underemployment is a financial blow, the researchers wrote.
  • Get social, and get moving: Social interaction and exercise were both associated with happiness. Working out made people happier regardless of body weight. The only correlation between body weight and happiness was that underweight men and obese women were more likely to be unhappy.

 

The study “The Challenge of Staying Happier: Testing the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model” is currently in press in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.



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