A Everyone has an average level of happiness, it seems. It’s different for different people, and we tend to return to it after good or bad experiences. We also tend to adapt quite well to whatever happens in our lives, and understanding this might be helpful when thinking about what makes us happy.
B Dr Alex Lickerman calls this average level our happiness set-point and says that it’s mostly fixed by genes and early life experiences. He explains that most things that make us happy usually only make us happier for a while, and most sad things tend to make us sad only for a while, and then our happiness usually comes back to our set-point. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt adds that the actual happiness we experience in life is like a range around our individual set-points, and whether you are higher or lower within your range will depend on other factors, such as your life situation and activities you do.
C An interesting way of thinking about where we are within our range and how we come back to our set-points comes from psychologist Dan Gilbert. Gilbert has spent years studying happiness, and he compares it to a holiday destination that you can visit but have to come back from. There are things you can do to visit more often and to stay there longer, he says, but you can’t stay there forever. On Laurie Santos’ Happiness Lab podcast, he explains that you need to come back to your normal level of happiness so that your emotional system can guide you to the next good thing that you should be doing.
D If the idea of returning to average happiness seems surprising, it might be because most of us are not very good at predicting how good or bad things will make us feel, Gilbert explains. Santos says that she sees this when teaching her students: they expect to be very happy if they get good grades and very upset if they get bad grades, but their predictions tend to be wrong. She adds that people who experience relationship breakups often feel better more quickly than they imagined they would, and people who don’t get the jobs they wanted often aren’t as disappointed as they expected to be.
E The good things won’t be as good, and the bad things won’t be as bad as we imagine, Gilbert says, and the good or bad feelings won’t last as long as we expect. This is partly because we tend to adapt quite well to whatever happens. Haidt calls this the adaptation principle and explains that it’s connected to what happens in our brains: nerve cells in our brains are very active in response to new stimuli, but less active in response to stimuli they have gotten used to. Our minds are very sensitive to changes, he says, but not so much when things stay the same.
F Understanding all this might be useful for us. It can help us to realise that the things we worry about probably won’t be as bad as we think; we’ll usually adapt quite well. It might also allow us to take more risks that would be good for our happiness, Santos says. She explains that we might normally avoid these risks because we are worried about bad outcomes, but if the outcome is bad, we’ll probably be fine. It also leads to an interesting conclusion about the connection between our goals and our happiness.
G Most of the happiness will come from making progress towards a goal rather than achieving it, Haidt says. We might expect that achieving our goals would bring us more happiness, but, because we adapt, that pleasure doesn’t usually last very long, he explains. He adds that if the successful result is expected, the feeling when we achieve our goals might be more relief than pleasure – like taking off a heavy rucksack at the end of a long hike. Set yourself any goal you want, he says, and the pleasure will come from the steps you take that get you closer to it.
H Working towards goals then might be one way to visit that happiness holiday destination more often. As for what else we might do to visit more often and stay for longer, or perhaps even change our average level, that’s coming in another article.
IELTS Reading Questions for Happiness Part 1:
Matching Headings & True / False / Not Given.
Sources and links from Happiness Part 1
– Psychology Today article about the happiness set-point by Alex Lickerman.
– Dan Gilbert talking about happiness in a TED Talk.
– Dan Gilbert and Laurie Santos on Laurie’s Happiness Lab podcast.
– Laurie Santos talking about happiness (take more risks) on Sam Harris’ podcast.
– Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, on Goodreads.
– Image used with permission from GoStrengths.