I’ve learned that we’re all born with a happiness baseline that can be improved from choices made every day. Happiness comes from within; increasing the natural happiness baseline comes from smart choices.
Positive psychology studies refer to a ‘hedonic set point’ or general level of happiness that may go up or down during certain periods of life but generally remains constant. Whether the happiness baseline can be re-set over a lifetime by making smart choices remains a question for many.
Alex Licherman writing in Psychology Today (April 2013) notes that a person’s happiness baseline is determined by a combination of heredity factors and personality traits. He explains that the baseline can be re-set for greater happiness by simple actions such as helping others, practicing gratitude. learning from mistakes, and exercise.
Unfortunately, when we feel discouraged or sad, we are less likely to have the emotional energy to reach out and help someone who is in need. Likewise, when feeling down we are unlikely to practice gratitude or expend the energy to exercise.
While it’s impossible — and not normal — to be happy all the time, we can take steps to fill the ‘half-full glass’. It’s especially important to reach out to others when we are feeling optimistic and encouraged as such actions serve as inoculation for times when negativity take over. Practicing kindness and acting with compassion will build up stores of ‘happiness’ energy.
Changes in behaviour, environment, relationships, and finances can also produce a happier outlook. It takes thought, focus, and a bit of work.
Behaviour Changes the Happiness Baseline
To improve my happiness baseline, I’m trying to improve timeliness. I’m working on a resolution to arrive 5 minutes early for commitments. By arriving early, I won’t chastise myself for lateness. Someone told me that arriving ‘on time’ is the equivalent of arriving late. Since I reprimand myself when I’m late, my new approach to ‘on time’ is to try to arrive about 5 minutes early. True confession, I’m having limited success with this behaviour change but I’m working on it!
Improving the happiness baseline doesn’t’ mean that you need to change your personality to become “Miss Sunshine” or “Mr. Optimism” but you can resolve to put a smile on your face and consciously demonstrate a happier perspective. We know that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown. Regardless of muscles involved, the message given when greeting others with a happy expression encourages reciprocity.
Smiling encourages positive emotions such as joy, love, and hope while diminishing negative feelings including anger or fear. Smiling helps to transition from a grumpy mood by allowing a re-focus of mental energy away from negative thinking.
Practising gratitude, developing an optimistic attitude, performing acts of kindness, and avoiding negative self-judgment are other categories of changes readers might consider when choosing behaviours to improve the happiness baseline.
Environment Can Change Your Happiness Baseline
Environment affects mood, productivity, and creativity. People respond to aesthetically pleasing rooms painted in colours that suit the purpose of the room. Positive energy increases when we feel at ease with the furnishings and decor of private spaces at home.
Personal tastes and culture influence choices but we can’t deny that surroundings have a huge impact on us in our everyday life. Sometimes even little things, like a messy entrance hall, a disorganized desk, or a bulging coat closet can change one’s mental outlook.
A few months ago, when staying in a friend’s home my husband remarked that he felt claustrophobic in the guest bedroom. From previous knowledge of feng shui, I knew that he was responding to blocked energy from a large television set that faced the bed, too much furniture, and stacked drawers beneath the bed. My husband’s comment about the negative effects from the over-crowded space resonated especially when my experience was similar.
Clearing clutter and organizing ‘stuff’ is critical to creating an environment that increases the happiness baseline. Clutter makes it hard to focus. I’ve recently been working to delete redundant emails and clear my inbox. I won’t confess to the number of unread emails that clutter the inbox but I’m determined to delete and unsubscribe relentlessly to make my computer workspace a happier place.
Relationships and Your Happiness Baseline
Perhaps more than anything, people massively impact your happiness baseline. Without relationships, we can be lonely, isolated, and depressed. We need meaningful relationships with others.
Social support is linked to many factors including reduced stress, improved immunity, greater life satisfaction, and reduced risk of mortality. A network of people who demonstrate pro-social behaviours including kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness increases the happiness baseline. In turn, each of us needs to support and encourage others with similar behaviours — it’s about give-and-take. Sharing personal feelings and listening to the feelings of others encourages positive emotions.
Not all relationships are pleasant. Hanging out with people who are irritable, argumentive, and disinterested can diminish happiness. Even a brief encounter with negativity from whiners and complainers affects your outlook because emotions are highly contagious. Limiting time spent with negative people and seeking relationships with happy people is a good strategy for maintaining a positive perspective.
Finances and Your Happiness Baseline
Regardless of how much or how little money you have, knowing where you stand financially is critical. Studies have shown that beyond having enough money to live comfortably, happiness won’t increase dramatically with oodles of cash. Financial literacy is important for managing what money you have to maximize the happiness baseline.
Most readers will know how much income to expect every month from pensions, investment income, and other sources. Keeping track spending is as important and understanding income. Not every expenditure for a cup of coffee needs to be tracked but big expenses like credit card charges, taxes, health costs, food, and entertainment should be known so that spending doesn’t exceed income.
My husband does most of the banking and bill payments for our household. Once a month we spend one evening looking at our financial position and making decisions about what adjustments if any, we should make. We make an annual plan so we don’t worry about aberrations that occur during some periods so long as the expenditures are a bit less than the income over the year.
Having a monthly meeting ensures that each of us knows about amounts/returns of investments, banking, and taxes. It’s also the time when we make decisions about investment changes, big purchases, emergency funds, vacations, etc. We meet with a financial advisor occasionally to review investment and tax strategies. After 50 plus years together, both of us agree about priorities; we plan well, and live within our means.
Hiroshima University economists who researched household economics found that financially literate people experience less anxiety in old age. They worry less. They are capable of managing their finances which improves happiness. In all likelihood, they have been capable of gathering enough assets to support a comfortable retirement lifestyle with better saving and investment decisions.
Evaluation of behaviour, environment, relationships and finances provides opportunity to make intentional choices to positively re-set the happiness baseline. We can’t change genetics but we can control thoughts, feelings, and actions.