When I look at short periods of my life, I find that my general levels of anxiety on a day to day basis remain about the same. The problems change constantly, of course, but regardless of how big or small they are I end up around the same intensity. Long-term that’s thankfully not true, a fact which I directly contribute to having a family, exploring spirituality and meditation, and improving my work circumstances. Nevertheless, today I have less problems than I did three days ago – but about the same amount of stress.
I see other people do it, and if I was a betting man I’d wager you’re that way too. If we have only little problems, we focus on one or a set of them and allow our negative self-talk to fill up the same amount of mental chatter and negativity that we do when we have large and pressing problems. The dog’s repeated crapping on the carpet seems very, very important until we have a real issue – and after the real issue comes, we’re anxious to about the same degree. It feels like some low-grade version of generalized anxiety disorder, and is probably a contributing factor to our base bodily urges toward coping substances. What’s up with that?
Happiness Baselines & The Hedonic Treadmill
The idea of baseline happiness, called the “hedonic set point” by positive psychology in regard to the hedonic treadmill, is that we return to the same general level of happiness continuously throughout our lives. Events occur and raise or lower our happiness, but then we inexorably return to the baseline. That inexorable return is “hedonic adaptation” and is commonly attributed to both genetics and personality. In other words and if these ideas are right, the problems you face right now are only a very minor part of your happiness.
These aren’t fatalistic ideas or some concept of our happiness being preordained. They’re a basis for work in positive psychology and many self-help books. And although the hedonic treadmill feels limiting because of the emphasis on genetics, it’s also freeing because it removes circumstances as a major area of work and instead turns our focus to our personalities. It also calls to attention our priorities; I get deep satisfaction that Investopedia includes a definition of the hedonic treadmill.
According to ars technica, a study counters the idea of the hedonic treadmill by showing that nearly 40% of respondents had significant changes in their general level of satisfaction over the course of twenty years. That sounds to me like a dispute whether the baseline is unchanged over a lifetime, but still implies baselines exist – after all, that means that 60% were about the same after two decades. But what’s most interesting about that excellent article is the five areas that were found to be most important:
The researchers found that these changes were related to personal choices the respondents revealed in the survey. Five particular factors are particularly important: partner characteristics, life goals and priorities, religion, the gap between work and leisure time, and adoption of a social and healthy lifestyle.
Five Real Areas To Work On
What that suggests to me, and what I’m suggesting to you, is that annoyances like the dog’s purposeful accidents on the carpet are not actually causing us to be unhappy. Well, to a degree – I don’t want to give Franco the idea he’s not going to get swatted in the nose if he does it again, in case he reads this. But overall, solving those issues won’t make actually make us any happier by themselves.
Instead, we should ask ourselves questions corresponding to the five factors above. After we improve in those areas, hopefully we won’t negatively obsess as much when the new dog we get in 10 years starts messing on the carpet, or whatever other trivial annoyance happens.
Am I working to increase my partner’s happiness – not in terms of the small and temporary problems, but in terms of this same list of questions I’m asking of myself? Does she or he need mental, physical, or other help? Sometimes the biggest cries for help are completely silent.
Am I doing this across the board with all the people I intend to keep in my life? Am I a vector for the the contagion of happiness? Can some people not be infected no matter what – are there relationships I have to let go because they no longer serve me?
2. Life Purpose
Have I re-examined my long-term goals recently? Have I spent adequate thought on the relationship between them and my life purpose? And more transiently, are my priorities on the things that actually matter to me?
It’s easy to confuse our goals with our life purpose, or with ourselves. The truth of it is that our base ambitions that surround our sense of self – our ego – have nothing to do with our overall happiness. Expanding your ego won’t ever make you happy. Your life purpose needs to be outbound, to do with others more than yourself. I think that, for most people, being of service and being helpful to others is the base of life purpose – that therein lies the starting point of the cultivation of happiness. Is that true for you?
Only you know that. Don’t let anyone else define you.
Have I made an honest attempt to discover a spirituality that appeals to me? Have I worked on cultivating that side of myself? Spirituality can help with all of these areas, especially formulating a life of purpose.
If you, dear reader, follow my my daily link updates to the home page, then you know that I don’t endorse a particular religion. I find Steven Furtick’s Christian sermon clips to be very inspirational, but emotionally I’m closer to the concepts of Brahman from Hinduism. Overall, I believe that meditation and mysticism are the roads to happiness because they’ve worked positively in my life so far. But that doesn’t mean that any of that stuff is for you!
Explore different religions and approaches to spirituality. Even if you think you know what suits you, don’t simply lock in and close your spirit off to the light and love of other approaches. Spirituality is a pathway and a calling, not a destination – you’ll never reach the end of it, so long as you live.
4. Work-Life Balance
How can I spend less time working for a wage and more time doing things that appeal to me? How can I make my efforts at income more enjoyable in the short term, while I work toward that goal?
I spent many years obeying the siren call of overworking, and it remains a struggle to this day. I believe the most important key to addressing this, if you have the same tendency, are setting hard limits on work.
Ultimately, the move to spend less time working and more time living is about dreamlining, and I can’t recommend Timothy Ferris’ book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich enough for inspiration and direction on reclaiming your independence.
5. Health and Being Social
Do I spend abundant time focusing on being healthy and spending time with my family and friends? I emphasize abundant because it’s all too easy to put a quota on these two things and treat them like something that can be fully accomplished, something that can be completed. And they can’t – both are about life itself, and interplay with everything we do.
Is health only a concern for me when I get sick? It should be about preventive maintenance, keeping in mind that different things work for different people based on body type. I’ve found some degree of success in health following the basic Ayurvedic principles, for example. But even if you haven’t found what works for you, you can adopt basic healthy habits and do your best to reduce your stress levels.
Do I let myself fail on purpose in my private ambitions so that I can truly embrace my loved ones? Being social shouldn’t mean mean being fake. Am I being my authentic self in my relationships? If that sounds hard, perhaps you need to make a conscious effort to stop being so introverted.
What Do You Think?
Have you witnessed your obsession over trivial problems balloon up in your mind when you don’t have any severe issues to contend with? If so, do you think the idea of a happiness baseline describes your experience? Or is it just the bad habit of negativity in your mind – something to be counteracted with mindfulness or affirmations? Do you suppose that addressing these five areas will reduce the significance of the little problems in your mind, over time?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
You may also enjoy:
- 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Happiness Set Point – thoughtmedicine.com
- How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point – psychologytoday.com
- 5 Tactics When Everything Needs Attention – programminglife.net
- The Limits of Self Improvement – programminglife.net
- 8 Pointed Path of Eknath Easwaran – programminglife.net