Several important considerations need to be clarified before answering that query. First, what is a person’s “set point” for happiness? Second, if things are genetically “set” to a certain extent, how can one increase, let alone sustain happiness?
A person’s set point for happiness is one’s genetically determined set range for happiness. It’s that place we all return to after the wild and romantic ride of first love, marriage, the thrill of a new job or some award, the loss of a parent or an illness. Imagine your own personal bell curve, though maybe it isn’t set squarely in the middle of the X axis. Perhaps it’s higher up the scale or lower depending on your genetic make-up. With or without the good or bad events that happen to us, it is where our happiness level sits.
The researchers argue that intentional behavioral, cognitive or volitional activity offers the best potential route to increasing and sustaining happiness. Behavioral activity includes exercising or being kind to others. Cognitive activity includes reframing situations in a more positive light or counting one’s blessings. Volitional activity might involve striving for important personal goals or devoting effort to meaningful causes.
Of the two interventions these researchers completed with their college test subjects, the one involving gratitude was the more interesting (and clearly, the most obvious to those of us who practice some form of spirituality). In the 6-week gratitude intervention, students were instructed to contemplate “the things for which they are grateful” either once a week or three times a week. Control participants completed only the happiness assessments and did not contemplate gratitude during the six-week study. In summary, students who regularly expressed gratitude showed increases in well-being over the course of the study relative to controls. (I know you’re not surprised. I certainly wasn’t…but we can now say that gratitude is scientifically significant.)
The key take-away from the journal article is that we, happiness seekers, find new activities to become engaged in, preferably activities that fit our values and interests. To avoid hedonic adaptation (becoming accustomed to a new situation or interest), we should vary the way we implement and practice our new strategies and interests. In other words, change things up because humans love novelty! Finally, the most important factor is to appreciate the activities in which we are engaged. Surprise, surprise!
You can find this article in the Review of General Psychology, 2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, pages 111-131. Sonja Lyubomirsky (UC Riverside), Kennon M. Sheldon (Univ. of Missouri) and David Schkade (UC San Diego)