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We have a fixed level of happiness

To make it short: The bigger share of our happiness is a given, according to the set-point-theory in happiness research, also known as the hedonic treadmill. This observation was first made in 1978 by researchers looking into the development of people’s life satisfaction after events like winning the lottery or having a major accident and finding that one’s overall happiness returns to the previous point after a while. In the 50 years after these findings, research continued to back up the observation, and expand on it, finding that the set point in happiness is different between individuals and there are exceptions in how set the point is. While most people seem to oscillate around a certain level of happiness, others experience lasting changes over time.  

Later in this series I will focus on how to increase overall happiness*, as this article will expand into a short series on happiness. As an introduction to the topic, let’s just accept the idea that our level of happiness is fate, or genes, given; What does this mean for us? How would our life change, if you knew for a fact that 20 years from now you will be as happy as you are now? If your mind works anything like mine, you may go through phases.  

  • Your first impulse could be something like: Oh no!  
    Thinking about your current level of happiness may be frustrating, since you’re probably not 100% happy. Also, getting stuck with your current level of happiness crushes the idea of a pursuit of happiness as a life goal. 
  • Your second reaction may be curiosity 
    How happy am I really? Is my overall happiness inacceptable? Wasn’t I happy as a child? How happy am I compared to other people? You may be assessing your own experience and see if you can relate to the idea of a stable level of happiness.
  • The next phase may be relief 
    If I do not have to fight to be happy, my life gets easier. I’m not super happy but I can live with where I’m at (I’ve done ok so far).  
  • And, finally: acceptance. My level of happiness is enough for me. I’m fine with how happy I am, and I’ll know that everything oscillates around this level, when I’m in my next emotional valley or hyped phase. 

Research indicating a set level of happiness is contested, and there are exceptions to each rule. For everyday life it can be a big milestone to stop fighting with yourself over striving for more of anything for the sake of your own happiness. This does not mean giving up your life’s goals or stopping to strive and contribute to society, but it can mean to do these things for their own sake more than to achieve a satisfaction you can ultimately only find within yourself. 



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