Take Time For Yourself Along The Way – Hedonic Adaptation & Wellness

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Have you ever worked so hard towards something in life only to realize you didn’t want it anymore?

Maybe you were so fixated on the future you got lost along the way. Maybe you forgot to check in with yourself & lost the motivation & reasons why you wanted those things in the first place. Maybe eventually you got what you were after, but then realized it wasn't what you really wanted after all.

I'm sure we've all been there. It's a trap that's oh-so-easy to get caught in, either striving for happiness as something outside of ourselves or something in the distant future. Yet when we do this we cheat ourselves of the potential to be happy in the moment (& can cause a lot suffering towards "finding" happiness along the way). When we divert the pursuit of happiness away from our relationship to the present moment, either by fixating on acquiring material things, future goals, or becoming something other than who we are right now, we make this mistake. We get lost & suffer needlessly.

It usually goes something like this: "I'll be happier when I get married, when I graduate university, when I get that new car, when I go on vacation, when I update my wardrobe, when I become spiritually enlightened, when I loose 20 lbs..."

Sound familiar? I know myself, I've endured years of suffering more than I needed to, believing "I'll be happy when...", deflecting my focus & attention away from my present desires & needs. Because if the future will make me happy, it's worth enduring pain & suffering right now, isn't it? No pain no gain?

Unfortunately, it's a little more complicated than that. To be clear, I'm not saying that working towards acquiring things, goals, or becoming a better version of yourself is to be avoided in life, or that sacrifices won't have to be made in achieving those goals.  Not at all - but the perspective on happiness which locates the potential for joy, fulfillment, contentment, & ease somewhere else other than where you are right now is a falsehood that needs to be addressed. It's an easy & destructive thing we're all prone to doing & believing. 

“Happiness is not out there for us to find. The reason that it’s not out there is that it’s inside us.” ― Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

To counter this lie, here's a truth: happiness isn't necessarily about the external conditions of your life. Only up to a certain extent (when your basic needs are met) do external circumstances contribute to your overall level of happiness. It's the internal circumstances that are so critical since you actually have control over them (your thoughts, actions, & attitudes for example). Not only that, but what you decide to pursue in life is of vital importance too, since these goals can be culturally (& somewhat unconsciously) determined, as opposed to individually (& hence more consciously or intentionally) determined. 

By looking into something called the "Hedonic Adaptation" & your "Happiness Baseline," I want to share with you a profound insight I've discovered over the years: the enduring, ongoing level of wellness you maintain, irrespective of positive or negative life events you experience, is what really counts when it comes to cultivating happiness & resilience in the long term. How you feel right now in relation to where you want to be actually does matter. Maybe even more so than what you're dreaming of going after. 

Hedonic Adaptation & The Happiness Set Point - Wellness Matters & The Cycle of "Never Enough" 

The principle of hedonic adaptation states that regardless of either positive or negative life events, we'll return to the "baseline of happiness” we were at before these events occurred.

So what does that mean? Well, if you get married, move into a home, finish university, or win the lottery, after that initial spike of excitement & pleasure you will return to the baseline of happiness you were at before these things happened to you. Similarly, if you get divorced, lose a loved one, or a job, or suffer an accident, after your strong emotional reaction to these events you will come back to the level of happiness you were at before any of this occurred. (Despite this theory holding up, I do not believe trauma incurred through negative experience is taken into account when evaluating recovery time.)

So according to this principle, regardless of what happens to you in your life, your happiness level will return to your baseline of happiness after the event has passed. What is a happiness baseline (or happiness set point) then? 

In Sonja Lyubomirsky's book "The How of Happiness," she refers to the happiness set point as a "genetically determined predisposition for happiness that is responsible for about 50% of the differences between you & everyone else.

"[So,] if you struggle with a low set point, meaning, you tend to gravitate towards sadness or depression, don't be so hard on yourself. To an extent, you're dealing with a stacked deck. Still, 50% as high as it is, is not 100%...[your] actions, thoughts & attitudes account for 40% of your happiness, which is quite significant."

So, breaking things down & highlighting a few things:

  • Replace the word happiness with wellness when it comes to your baseline & you'll soon see my point: maintaining an ongoing level of wellness is fundamentally important. 
    • You'll wind up at this point emotionally anyways, regardless what life throws your way.
    • Your level of wellness & happiness right now contributes to your overall level of wellbeing for years to come. Self-care is not a means to an end - think of it as the core of your resilience.
  • Also, it's easy to chase after things that we think will make us happy but really don't matter all that much. In fact, it's a human tendency to do so. Oftentimes our desires & goals are aligned with culturally determined markers of success that don't truly enhance our level of wellbeing.
    • We chase after happiness as if it were the latest trend & get bored as soon as we get there (hence the alternative term of this phenomenon the hedonic treadmill).
    • So ask yourself – do you not already have in life what you need to be happy right now? Oftentimes the answer is yes.
  • Another important point that comes out of researching this phenomenon – our baseline is by no means a neutral or predetermined point. Roughly 50% of our baseline is determined by genetics & roughly 40% of it is dependent on our actions, thoughts, and our attitudes.
    • So maintaining a positive outlook & examining assumptions & beliefs that leave you feeling pessimistic – this is important work.   
    • However, a huge factor influencing both genetics & individual choice is our environment. So, circumstances such as the level of wealth, human rights, & political stability of the nation you were born in, along with the dominant culture's tolerance to your ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, & level of ability - these things really do matter and influence your ability to improve your happiness set point.
      • ie. So be nice to yourself and to others. Positive thinking alone isn't the only work to be done towards wellbeing & happiness.
      • Also, recognize when you have the power to change something & when it is out of your control & do what you can do.

Improve Your Baseline & Fulfill Your Needs – My Own Story

As an undergraduate student going through university, I really struggled to honour my needs & desires as well as prioritize the things that made me feel good. I spent a lot of time being rundown, lonely, anxious, depressed, sick, & in physical pain. 

To be clear, there’s no way around the fact that getting through university is tough business. Yet my ideas around long-term goals & what it would take to reach them were a little skewed. I made this classic mistake believing “I would be happy when…” (I graduated university & got a good job) & saw my current state of wellbeing at odds with the goals I was pursuing.

Not to say that I didn’t want to be well – I definitely did, but I felt like there was never enough time to do the things that left me feeling revitalised & recharged. “I’ll be happier when I have more time” was my mantra. It was like life in university was telling me that wellness & academic success were mutually exclusive things & that suffering was inevitable (so suck it up and get used to it).

To an extent this is sadly true. When pursuing something outside your comfort zone sacrifices are inevitable and you will have less time. It’s also true that I didn’t have all that much time for exercise, being in nature, making healthy meals, or spending time with friends. But I also wasted a lot of my time on unhealthy coping mechanisms that made it feel as though I was fulfilling my needs & desires, when really these “false friends” left me feeling drained & guilty.  

I’ll admit it – I’m a (recovering) procrastinator.  I procrastinated so much that it became an integral part of my work cycle that essentially replaced forms of authentic self-care. This all amounted to an irony I could not ignore: whenever I did get more time (after midterms, the semester’s end, during the summertime etc. etc.) I didn’t know what to do with it. I would more or less waste the time I had the same as I would while I was in school. It was unnerving! Clearly, I was missing something because this suck-it-up mentality clearly wasn’t working out. Then it dawned on me: how is it even possible to maintain happiness (when it comes) when you're so used to feeling miserable all the time?

Honestly, I don’t think it ever “comes.” Happiness & wellbeing isn’t something that falls from the sky & into our laps, or is a fixed point in the distant future. Happiness & wellbeing is here for you to experience right now if you’re open to it.

So go ahead! aspire towards your goals & aspirations, your better life & future plans. Do however take heed: beware the phrase “I’ll be happy when….” & beware the tendency to uphold your misery through self-sacrifice & self-denial by believing these things are more important than they actually are. Be well & be here – you might actually find the kind of happiness that sticks around for a while (over & over & over again).