Archive for December, 2007

Can our happiness set-point be raised?

Psychology studies tell us that we each have a baseline level of happiness. Certain events take us above this baseline, others take us below, but no matter how glorious or traumatic the event, we return to our baseline within months. Thus, each person is said to have a happiness set-point, which is thought to remain constant throughout life.

What causes this set-point? Twins that were reared apart tend to have similar levels of happiness, suggesting that a component is genetic. All of this could lead to the conclusion that there is nothing we can do: If we are happy, we always will be; if we are unhappy, we always will be. Indeed, in the paper Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon, the authors speculate that “trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and therefore is counterproductive”. Sadly, many of us can identify with this sentiment from personal experience.

The good news is that our happiness set-point is probably not set in stone. The reason that most people’s happiness remains constant is simply that they have no idea how to increase it. However, the evidence suggests that increasing it is in fact possible. Indeed, an author of the above quote subsequently wrote a book on overcoming our genes and becoming happier (Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment). More compelling evidence comes from the recent findings on neuroplasticity. This is a field of research showing that the brain can grow new neurons and change its structure throughout life. For example, in London cab drivers, the regions of the brain responsible for navigation were found to be expanded as a result of their years of driving. Neuroplasticity offers hope: Perhaps our brain is currently “wired” for unhappiness, but can it be “rewired”?

In the excellent book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley addresses exactly this question. The happiness set-point only exists because people do not understand how mental training that can rewire their brains. A quote from her book reads:

Consider an analogy. You are studying whether measures of cardiovascular health – resting heart rate and blood pressure, for instance – can be improved. You are conducting the experiment in a society that has yet to get the news that there is such a thing as aerobic exercise. You dutifully measure the resting heart rate and blood pressure of your couch potatoes every year for several decades. Except for some change due to aging, their heart rate and blood pressure are, you find, remarkably stable. You win fame and fortune and Time cover stories for discovering the “cardiovascular set point.”

With this, we conclude that there is potential for raising the happiness set-point, but that it requires a regimen of mental training to do so. We must stop looking for happiness in material possessions, which study after study confirm do not contribute to happiness, and instead go about cultivating the mind. In his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, scientist-turned-Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes specific mental exercises that we can use to increase our happiness. He supports his claims with studies (which he helped design) of the effects of meditation on brain activity in the left cortex, a region associated with happiness and compassion. His message is that happiness is accessible to all. It is not some fixed quantity pre-determined by our genes. However, to experience happiness fully, we must be determined to look for it in the right places. We must cultivate its true cause.

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Surrender to uncertainty!

The world is uncertain: We cannot control our lives. We cannot control the world, we cannot control other people, we only have limited control over ourselves. Many of us feel uncomfortable about this. We want security in our lives. We like to plan our futures and be reassured that everything will be OK. Uncertainty is not reassuring – it is scary. Yet until we accept it, we will never be comfortable.

The truth is, anything could happen at any time. We go ahead making our plans – thinking about what we will do, whether we’ll have kids, where we will live, and so forth. Yet these plans could be shattered in an instant, dramatically so. There may be an unexpected tragedy – our loved one might die, we may fall ill, or a war could break out. There may also be an unexpected opportunity – we change careers, or meet the man of our dreams. If we cling too strongly to our plans, this uncertainty will scare us. Even good opportunities will be viewed as threats, things that shake up our security. Thus, to shrink from uncertainty is to live in fear. Instead, we must surrender to it, accept it, even embrace it.

There is nothing wrong making plans in life, but we must take these plans with a pinch of salt. Living life is like being swept downstream by a raging river. Our struggling is of limited use. We may have some control – we can steer away from rocks, keep our head above water – but for the most part, we are at the mercy of the river. Many people think this analogy is depressing, viewing life is the avoiding of rocks. This misses the point: Riding down a river is fun! It is fun provided that we relax, accept the uncertainty, and enjoy whatever surprises come.

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