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Two Ways Out of the Happiness Rut

All people are the same; only their habits differ. ~ Confucius

This is a post about what keeps us stuck and sets us free, about the good news behind bad luck, and the wrong way to want the right thing: It’s about our habits.

Human beings are creatures of habit — even emotionally. But why is this? Why do we fall into routines? And why is it so hard to break a habit? The short answer is something called set point. You’re probably familiar with this idea if you have ever been on a diet or had a new year’s resolution. They both start well. You are going to make a change in your life and you are ready for it. But after a little bit of time, the old habits creep back in. Before you know it the old patterns of behavior have settled back in and the enthusiasm for change is lost.

The idea of a set point means that our way of being is determined mainly by genetics and conditioning. The genetic part has typically implied that our genes determine about 50% or so of who we are and what we do. Even our happiness and life satisfaction have this kind of stability. When good or bad things happen to us, we are elated or woeful for a while, but then we come back to our normal range. Studies with people who have won the lottery have found that they are ecstatic — initially. But after the original thrill wears off, they go back to their usual levels of happiness. Similarly, people who have had bad luck, like accident victims who have become paraplegic, are devastated at first but return over time to their original level of life satisfaction. The argument for a happiness set point says that almost regardless of what happens to you, the forces of genetics and circumstance will bring you back to where you were.

This is good news and bad. The good news is that when misfortune finds us, there is some natural bounce that can help in our emotional recovery. The other news is when good things happen, they’re not likely to be sustainable.

Each of us has a different set point. Just like the thermostat in your neighbor’s house might be a little higher or lower than yours, we each have a different happiness set point. If yours is on the high side, you are a mostly happy person. If it is low, primarily unhappy — each of us self-regulates to our emotional thermostat.

Yet, what if you go to visit your friend who keeps their temperature 5 or 10 degrees warmer than you? You make adjustments. You might open the button on your shirt and roll up your cuffs, and after a bit of time, you acclimate to the new temperature. We may be creatures of habit, but we are also highly adaptable.

This adaptability is great when our circumstances change for the worse. It means the pain of this change won’t last forever. We build up a tolerance as a way of coping with it. But when things get better, we will also get used to them. Scientists call this type of adaptation a “hedonic treadmill.” As good things happen, we become less enthusiastically satisfied. This tendency, to rather quickly return to an established level of happiness despite major positive events or life changes, is the result of expectations.

Making more money is a good example. As your income goes up expectations and desires rise accordingly. As a result, our happiness is minimized, and then we look for the next thing, or person, or experience that will engage us. The result? No permanent gain in happiness.

Proof Positive

But this quest is never-ending. In our constant striving for happiness, our emotions will curdle. If you’ve ever gotten onto an airplane and walked through first-class to your place in coach, you might think how happy you would be if you were sitting in those great seats. But if you look around at the people sitting in first class, they are not as wildly happy as you imagined they should be. Why? The hedonic treadmill. Maybe they were delighted the first or second time, but now as it has become something of a routine, it loses luster — as we get habituated to good things; they elude our joy. But something can be done to change this.

Studies have shown that materialists, those on the perpetual treadmill for the next purchase that will make them happy, have high expectations about what that new gizmo will do to make them delighted. When the thrill of the new thing wanes, they immediately lose gratitude for it. Without gratitude, they’ll dismiss the object as a source of joy, and go on to purchase the next gadget, piece of technology, or clothing. Each thing brings with it a high expectation of pleasure. Then each falls short — continuing the hedonic treadmill. The same experience happens when we take people for granted. We can lose gratitude for those close to us.

One way to shift your set point higher and get off the hedonic treadmill is to develop a gratitude habit for what and who you have in your life. By cultivating an appreciation for the things that you have, you can curb your dissatisfying quest for more. When you put more effort into your relationships, you are investing in the best possible source of sustainable happiness: the relationship we have with other people.

I recommend two changes. First, when some appreciated object breaks down, gets torn, or falls apart, don’t immediately look to replace it. Be mindful of the service or utility it has afforded you and make an effort to repair, mend, or put it back together. That may not always be possible, but being thankful of the benefit it has provided, and its reliability and value will allow you to appreciate its significance and usefulness to you more fully. Secondly, treat each encounter with another person as sacred. Make being kind to others your new habit. Kindness is a type of gratitude in action, and having gratitude turns what we have — into enough.

Two Ways Out of the Happiness Rut


Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for PsychCentral.com, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential. Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.  


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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2019). Two Ways Out of the Happiness Rut. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/two-ways-out-of-the-happiness-rut/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Dec 2019 (Originally: 8 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Dec 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.