Happiness for Dummies

Have you ever hit a goal that you worked really hard for, only to turn around feeling unfulfilled, looking for the next jolt of satisfaction to chase?

Happiness always seems to fade, and not just with goals, but with purchases, experiences, even relationships.

You buy the latest iPhone, take a vacation in Costa Rica, get a new job, find a new partner…and shortly after, you’re no longer feeling as happy as you were before, so you start working toward a raise, buy some new clothes, try a new restaurant….because you have to find something else to feel better again.

We all do it. We’re all dummies. Myself included.

If you’re constantly returning to a state of unhappiness, what’s the point? Why bother working so hard when you know that disappointment and frustration are just around the corner?

It can feel like you’re a hamster running on a wheel (but without the free food and housecleaning services), and can be just as exhausting. Eventually, you might get to a point where it’s easier to feel apathetic about the wheel than to keep running.

Happiness set point theory attempts to explain why we’re so bad at feeling happy when we work so goddamn hard for it.

The theory suggests that each time you experience something, good or bad, you will eventually return to a predetermined level of happiness. Your set point, determined by genetics and conditioning, will regulate long-term impact of events.

That means that whether you have your foot amputated or buy a new car, you’re not going to remain too down in the dumps or too elated for very long.

Considering that there are a lot of things that can go wrong in life, your happiness set point is a protective mechanism. If your dog dying when you were six left you crying yourself to sleep at night for the rest of your life, I don’t imagine you’d be functioning as well as you are now.

The problem is you can spend all of your time trying to collect things that will bring you joy, and with each new wonderful experience, happiness will seem to escape through your fingers. It’s as if you were going trick-or-treating with a hole in your bucket, and each new candy that you received fell out on the way to the next house.

The good news is you can increase your happiness set point.

Here are a few proven ways to do it:

Altruism - Studies have shown that we feel better longer when we do things for other people. And it doesn’t even have to be big things. You don’t have to go volunteer at a soup kitchen on your day off. Performing small random acts of kindness a few times a week will get the job done.

Some examples: buy a coffee, perform an errand or chore, donate clothes or food. If you’re thinking, "I don’t have time for that," then thank someone, tell someone something you appreciate or admire in them, or give them a compliment.

Optimism - I’ve been talking about optimism a lot lately. To be clear, optimism is not relentless, delusional positivity. It’s looking realistically at hardship to determine its causes and how to move forward and grow from it.

Gratitude - Gratitude is one of the most important emotions to strengthen relationships. Cultivating gratitude can lead to feeling more relaxed, more optimistic, more resilient, increase self-esteem, boost your immune system, improve your sleep and energy, deepen relationships, increase sociability and kindness, and increase productivity.

Physical health - I think this is pretty self-explanatory. I will add that there is a pretty strong connection between physical health and mental health, not just in regards to happiness. It pays a thousand times over to take care of your body, to eat well and move often.

Relationships - I have said before that I believe that among food, water, and air, human connection is a basic necessity. Neglecting how important relationships are—and I’m not just talking about romantic partners here, I’m including friends, family, colleagues, even customers—will deeply impact your overall quality of life.

Want to practice increasing your happiness right here and now? Try this brief exercise that combines the gratitude and relationships categories:

You can feel gratitude for what you have, what’s happened to you, what you’ve done, what someone else has done for you…there are many spheres in which you can recognize what you’re grateful for. Think of something that someone else has done for you lately and thank them for it. With a simple "thank you," you can give yourself a gratitude boost and as an added bonus, give someone else a boost.

Oh, and thank you for reading.