From the Science of Happiness Course:
Researchers believe this practice makes you feel happier because it makes you think more highly of yourself and become more aware of positive social interactions. It may also increase your kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—attitudes and tendencies toward others. Evidence suggests that variety is key: People who perform the same acts over and over show a downward trajectory in happiness, perhaps because any act starts to feel less special the more it becomes routine.
The study really stresses that salience and mindfulness are the keys. Many things can sort of emulate mindfulness or salience, but no particular habit can truly accomplish this. People need to be consistently generating salience in their lives. We can engage in particular activities that are designed around this, but the effects tend to be short-lived (e.g. “counting your blessing” practices). The proper way to go about this is in a “meta” fashion. You need to be constantly working on the idea of salience and improvement, not just practicing the same activity to break hedonic adaptation in the same way over and over. To thrive on life is to always be looking for ways to improve.
And the study,
The pursuit of happiness is an important goal for many people. However, surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.
I think it should two caveats should be noted to the genetic setpoint. One is that gene expression changes based on environmental input, including positive lifestyle choices you make. The second is that the genetic setpoint is only responsible for a portion of your happiness, not the majority.
Today, the enduring U.S. obsession with how to be happy can be observed in the row upon row of popular psychology and self-help books in any major bookstore and in the millions of copies of these books that are sold.
Not surprisingly, the majority of U.S. residents rate personal happiness as very important (Diener, Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995; Triandis, Bontempo, Leung, & Hui, 1990) and report thinking about happiness at least once every day
Also, happy people are not just self-centered or selfish; the literature suggests that happy individuals instead tend to be relatively more cooperative, prosocial, charitable, and “other-centered”
Thus, researchers still know surprisingly little about how to change well-being, that is, about the possibility of “be coming happier.”
The problem is further compounded by the tendency of applied mental health researchers to focus on pathology rather than on positive mental health (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and by the thorny issues raised when theorists speculate on how people “should” live their lives to maximize their potential for happiness
A second and closely related source of pessimism comes from the literature on personality traits. Traits are cognitive, affective, and behavioral complexes that are, by definition, consistent across situations and across the life span and therefore may account for part of the stability of the set point. In support of the latter assumption, McCrae and Costa (1990) have shown impressive long-term stability for the “Big Five” traits, including the two traits most closely related to well-being: neuroticism and extraversion. Specifically, people tend to maintain the same rank ordering in their levels of worry, rumination, and guilt, as well as in their levels of social engagement, enthusiasm, and self-confidence. Because of the close relation between psychological well-being and these personality characteristics, McCrae and Costa argued that people also tend to maintain the same relative level of happiness over time
For context, this last quote is referring to the phenomenon where individuals tend to return to their individual set point for happiness, with a strong genetic weight on the set point. This text is one of the major sources of pessimism about being able to change this set point. However I think that when one switches their mode of thinking in life from complacency to attempting to actively thrive on life and think critically about society and culture, personality can change radically. In my experience, many people tend to get stuck with their conditioning and this would be a factor in having such purportedly consistent personality traits. Those that recognize how conditioning occurs however, and practice mindfulness about one’s self can change their personality traits quite dramatically. I have experienced this myself and seen it in many others. Thus, if we assert that personality traits are a factor in the happiness set point, we should know that it is possible to change this set point.
A third source of pessimism arises from the concept of the hedonic treadmill (Brickman & Campbell, 1971), which suggests that any gains in happiness are only temporary, because humans so quickly adapt to change
This is where I think that thriving on life instead of being complacent matters. I don’t think there’s any way to “get around” adapting to events making us happy in the short-term, but I don’t think this is actually a problem. Constant change and attempts at improvement is a requirement when an individual chooses to thrive on life.
Further evidence of hedonic adaptation comes from findings of remarkably small correlations between happiness and wealth
Despite the seemingly compelling reasons we have listed for pessimism regarding attempts to elevate levels of well-being, there are also compelling reasons for optimism. In the follow- ing, we briefly describe four sources of optimism, returning to consider some of them in greater detail later.
gintThe potential of happiness-enhancing interventions is further reflected in emerging research in the positive psychology tradition demonstrating that practicing certain virtues, such as gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), forgiveness (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000), and thoughtful self- reflection (King, 2001; Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhoof, 2004), can bring about enhanced well-being.
A third reason for optimism is provided by recent findings that older people tend to be somewhat happier than younger people (Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001; Diener & Suh, 1998; Roberts & Chapman, 2000; Sheldon & Kasser, 2001). Specifically, both cross-sectional and longitudinal work has shown that older persons report higher life satisfaction and lower negative affect. Although these main effects do not always emerge, they are observed frequently enough to suggest that greater happiness can indeed be achieved over time
It’s good to know that longitudinal studies have been done on this, so we know that people do in fact become happier over time instead of just past generations being happier than more recent generations.
It is worth adding, however, that people may vary in their “hedonic profiles,” such that two individuals with similar chronic happiness levels might differ in their relative levels of contentment with life versus their relative frequency of experiencing positive and negative mood states.
Figure 1 of the study shows the approximate percentage of the three factors weight on happiness: 40% intentional activity, 10% life circumstances, and 50% set point.
have consistently shown that monozygotic twins exhibit considerably more similar patterns of happiness change than do dizygotic twins, providing converging support that the variance in adult happiness is in large part determined genetically.
I wouldn’t personally consider this strong evidence that the genetic set point for happiness is immutable, nor that it is such a huge factor in chronic happiness.
The set point probably reflects relatively immutable intrapersonal, temperamental, and affective personality traits, such as extraversion, arousability, and negative affectivity, that are rooted in neurobiology (e.g., Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999; Davidson, 1999; Depue & Collins, 1999; Gray, 1990; Kagan, 2003; Robinson, Emde, & Corley, 2001), are highly heritable (Tellegen et al., 1988), and change little over the life span
The brain is constantly changing and learning, I think to say that just because we’ve observed that something is “rooted in neurobiology” with little tendency to change, doesn’t mean it actually can’t or is somehow resistant to change.
However, as suggested earlier, all circumstances combined account for only 8% to 15% of the variance in happiness levels (Argyle, 1999; Diener et al., 1999). These relatively weak associations have been deemed surprising and paradoxical, given well-being researchers’ initial expectations that circumstantial factors such as income and physical health would be strongly related to happiness
Thus, although one may gain a temporary “boost” by moving to a new region, increasing one’s income level, or changing one’s appearance, such boosts will probably not last, because people tend to adapt to constant circumstances. Other reasons why circumstantial changes may prove ineffectual for permanently increasing happiness include the fact that circumstantial changes can be costly (e.g., in terms of money, resources, and time) and, in many cases, impractical or even impossible. Also, once a realistic “ceiling” of positive circumstances is reached, it may be difficult to improve matters further.
Of course, if people have not achieved basic subsistence and security, then it is logical for them to attend to these circumstances and basic needs first, before focusing on maximizing their happiness.
It is worthy to note that being able to actively improve one’s self and try to “pursue happiness” is a privileged endeavour. It is a shame however that more people with this privilege do not actively try to thrive on life. Perhaps this should be a wake up call for those who aren’t.
In such studies, students are typically asked to pursue self-generated personal goals over the course of a semester. High levels of goal progress or attainment consistently predict increased well-being (i.e., higher positive affect and life satisfaction and lower negative mood) from the beginning to the end of the semester, whereas low levels of progress predict reduced well-being
well-being increases are most likely when a person chooses and attains self-concordant goals, that is, goals that “fit” the person
Taking this opportunity to point out that articles along the lines of “Start enforcing these key habits/goals for happiness!” miss the point.
More important, they found that students could maintain their enhanced level of well-being, but only if they continued to do well at their goals during the second semester. In contrast, students who did well in the first semester but not in the second semester tended to regress back to their original well-being levels
The Further supporting this conclusion, Shel- don and Lyubomirsky (2004) recently resurveyed these participants 3 years after the original study and found that initially high-performing students had maintained their earlier gains in emotional well-being throughout their college career.
In other words, consistent with the present model, only activity-based well-being change lasted; circumstance-based happiness change did not.
Unfortunately the correlations on the figure are pretty low, however so are p-values.
By being mindful of the “refractory period” (Kalat, 2001) after which a recently performed activity regains its full happiness-inducing potential, individuals may maximize the benefits of the activity over time and avoid reducing or eliminating the activity’s effectiveness through overuse. Thus, people should strive to discover the optimal timing for each activity, that is, a frequency of engagement that allows that activity to remain fresh, meaningful, and positive for a particular person.
Interesting note, this is a huge problem with emotional binge eating that I struggle with.
Yet another advantage of intentional activity is that it can directly tackle the problem presented by adaptation. For example, the cognitive practice of pausing to savor the good things in one’s life can directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation to one’s constant circumstances by drawing attention to the features that produced the initial happiness boost and helping to keep them from being taken for granted. As another example, practiced meditators frequently report renewed appreciation of the ordinary as a result of their intentional reencounters with the world.
For example, “being married” and “being a student” both denote demographic status, yet they also reflect particular sorts of activities. From our perspective, the crucial distinction with respect to well-being is whether one exerts intentional effort with respect to the circumstantial category, that is, whether one acts upon the circumstance (e.g., using intentional practices to keep the circumstance “frenFurthermore, such effort may constitute a limited resource, one that must be marshaled carefully; in Muraven and Baumeister’s (2000) terms, self-regulatory will is like a “muscle” that has limited capacity in a given unit of time and must be used strategically to avoid fatigue.
If this analogy is accurate, then it seems logical that some people develop the muscle to a greater extent than others, thus attaining a greater ability to “get started” on their intentions and gaining greater happiness potential. Of course, some activities will appear intrinsically more appealing and will be easier to jumpstart; this is undoubtedly one advantage of selecting an activity that fits one’s personality.
Of note, self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Sheldon, Joiner, & Williams, 2003) posits that the crucial factor in such cases is whether the person has internalized the non- enjoyable activity, that is, whether he or she is able to find meaning and value expression in it, even if it is not pleasant to perform.
The strategy of committing acts of kindness was expected, on the basis of previous theory and research, to boost temporary moods and long-lasting well-being. For example, individuals who report a greater interest in helping others, an inclination to act in a prosocial manner, or intentions to perform altruistic or courteous behaviors are more likely to rate themselves as dispositionally happy
over the course of the 6-week period, participants who committed acts of kindness experienced a significant increase in well-being, but this increase was evident only among those who showed their weekly generosity all in a single day. Because many of the kind acts that students performed were small ones, spreading them over the course of a week might have diminished their salience and power or made them less distinguishable from participants’ habitual kind behavior.
Finally, the practice of gratitude appears to be incompatible with negative emotions and thus may reduce feelings of envy, anger, or greed.
In summary, students who regularly expressed gratitude showed increases in wellbeing over the course of the study relative to controls, but these increases were observed only among students who performed the activity just once a week (see Figure 3, bottom panel). Perhaps counting their blessings several times a week led people to become bored with the practice, finding it less fresh and meaningful over time. Although the results of these two interventions are encouraging, they notably did not test the sustainability of the well-being increases for the experimental groups
This means that there is no habit that is a panacea in increasing happiness. Researchers have shown that reflecting on our lives in regards to gratitude and being grateful increases our well-being, albeit only temporarily. The concern in this quote is that the practice of counting their blessings lost it’s salience after a short period of time. The important thing is to break hedonic adaptation and look for new salience, constantly. The only thing that should perhaps be practiced constantly with an expectation for well-being, is the very concept of mindfulness on the matter—constantly looking for new ways to improve and thrive.
What are the most general recommendations for increasing happiness suggested by our model? Simply, happiness seekers might be advised to find new activities to become engaged in, preferably activities that fit their values and interests. They should make a habit out of initiating the activity while at the same time varying their focus and timing in terms of the way they implement the activity. People might be advised to avoid basing their happiness on the acquisition of particular circumstances or objects (e.g., buying a luxury car or moving to California), because they will tend to habituate to such stable factors. Again, however, one can deter, or at least delay, such adaptation to positive circumstantial changes by engaging in intentional effort and activity with respect to them. That is, if one can remember to appreciate or actively engage with the object or circumstance (i.e., pause to savor the new Mercedes or take advantage of the California weather), then stable objects and circumstances may not be stable after all, from a phenomenological perspective. Thus, it remains the case that only life changes involving intentional activity can be expected to lead to sustainable changes in well-being.