The Happiness Thermostat

            A famous study compared lottery winners and accident victims a year later, and found that people in both groups had pretty much returned to the individual levels of overall happiness that they’d had before their good- or ill-fortune.  If you were a grump, winning the lottery just made you a rich grump; and if you were pretty contented, pain and disability didn’t have much impact on your overall positive outlook. That finding, and a great deal of other research data, suggests that each of has a “set point” for happiness, like a thermostat; a self-regulating mechanism that returns us to our own characteristic subjective well-being point after the ups and downs of immediate joy and misery have worn off.  The great question is, can we adjust it?  If my thermostat is set for a relatively cool 65 degrees, can I turn it up to a warmer 72?  Or is the set point something that’s determined so much by our genes and our early life experiences that adults should not try to change it but put on sweaters instead?

            Things are not really that dismal:  though we obviously have basic temperamental differences, there is good reason to believe that the set point is changeable, especially through some of the mindfulness techniques addressed in this website.  In the most recent, respected research articles that I can find, the authors estimate that about half of an individual’s subjective well-being set point is determined by genetic heritage.  Another ten percent, they estimate, is due to the relatively unchangeable circumstances of their lives (health, marital, and occupational status).  That leaves a substantial forty percent of your happiness level that’s subject to things you can control much more easily than drastically changing the circumstances of your life—your attitude, your habits, your thought patterns, your relationships.

 

The Hedonic Treadmill

            The Hedonic Treadmill is a fancy term from behavioral economics.  It basically states that after you get what you want, you won’t be satisfied with it for long, and will want more.  There’s a lot of research to back this up, but if you look closely at yourself, you know it’s true.  What’s the last big thing you bought?  Did it even bring you half as much pleasure as you thought it would?

            A scary recent study found that consumers served the same wine at different prices liked it better the more it cost.  What’s scary is that the researchers were looking right into the brain:  they found that the pleasure circuits in the brain did indeed light up more when the subjects were sampling the wine at higher prices.  At the same time, the taste centers in the brain were staying steady.  So the brain itself was tricking the subjects; the more expensive wine really did bring them more pleasure, even if it tasted the same. 

            In fact, the most basic fallacy of happiness is the belief that I’ll be happy when I get what I want.  The evolutionary truth is that the purpose of good feelings is to get us to want more, to keep striving, to go farther.  Your brain really doesn’t care at all if you’re happy.  That, you have to do on your own.

 

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