The Set-Point Theory for happiness states that everyone has a genetically determined “baseline” level of happiness. But Positive Psychology research by psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ken Sheldon suggests that up to 40 percent of our happiness can come from actively practicing gratitude to become more grateful in our everyday lives.
What is a happiness set-point?
A set-point in the context of body weight is like your body’s “happy place.” It’s a weight range that your body feels most comfortable at, and it tries to stay there. If you lose a little weight, your set-point is challenged and thinks you’re in a famine, so it compensates by making you feel hungry or slowing down your metabolism. Conversely, if you gain some weight, your set-point can make you feel less hungry, or your metabolism might speed up a little to shed those extra pounds. In essence, you have to fight your set-point in order to move the scale up or down.
Just like your body has a comfortable weight range, your mind has a comfortable happiness range. We all experience ups and downs, but most people tend to gravitate back to their set-point or baseline happiness level.
How Does a Happiness Baseline Work?
Imagine winning the lottery or getting a promotion; you’d probably feel ecstatic, right? But according to this theory, after a while you’d drift back to your usual level of happiness. The same goes for minor negative events. Arguing with a spouse or roommate about the lid on the toothpaste (or the toilet) might bring you down for awhile, but you’ll bounce back to your regular happiness baseline.
Is your happiness Set-point Fixed?
It was once believed that this happiness set-point was fixed, influenced by genetics and personality traits, and couldn’t be reset.
As a professor at the UC Davis in the 1980s, Dr. Robert A Emmons collaborated with Michael McCullough, psychologist at the University of Miami, where they made several important discoveries about gratitude. One unexpected discovery was that gratitude was able to increase an individual’s happiness set-point.
In his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Emmons explains, “Expressing gratitude for life’s blessings – that is, a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation – is likely to elevate happiness for a number of reasons. Grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances. Counting one’s blessings may directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation, the process by which our happiness level returns, again and again, to its set-point, by preventing people from taking the good things in their lives for granted. If we consciously remind ourselves of our blessings, it should become harder to take them for granted and adapt to them. And the very act of viewing good things as gifts is itself likely to be beneficial for mood.”
The book The Gratitude Project: How the Science of Thankfulness Can Rewire Our Brains for Resilience, Optimism, and the Greater Good explains it this way: “Research shows that our emotional systems like newness. They like novelty. They like change. So, positive emotions tend to wear off quickly. We adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new spouse, the new house—they don’t feel so new and exciting anymore. But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted. In effect, gratitude allows us to participate more fully in life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.”
3 Ways to practice gratitude to Increase Your Happiness Baseline.
Now that we understand the Happiness Set-Point, and the science behind gratitude’s ability to level up our baseline, we’re all on board to understand exactly how to do it. Unfortunately, the whole truth is that it is difficult to sustain feelings of gratitude.
Some days it’s easier than others to feel truly grateful, and to be happy about our dependence on others for good things in our life.
This is why gratitude is more than a fleeting feeling, it’s an “attitude of gratitude”.
- It requires daily discipline to improve our disposition of gratefulness like any other habit or skill.
- It also requires a foundational belief that all of life is a gift so we actively pursue experiences, thoughts, and conversations that reinforce this belief.
Here 3 ways to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Prayers of Gratitude
Dr. Emmons discovered that nearly 80 percent of his research participants were grateful for their own health or the health of family members, making it the number one reason to feel grateful.
He found that over 70% said they prayed daily in some form. Being healthy & alive is the main source of prayerful gratitude and rejoicing.
Join in: Try saying a short but sweet prayer of gratitude in the morning as soon you open your eyes, thanking God for another day. Make the first thought of the day gratitude!
Savor the moments, big & small
This requires mindfulness. What do you see around you? Use your senses to fully “savor” the moment.
This means actively, consciously, purposefully seeking experiences & thoughts throughout the day that bring joy & gratitude. People watching, enjoying nature, being aware of our body’s senses where we are, all teach us to relish being alive & well.
Journaling is the Best Way to Practice Gratitude Daily
One of the best daily gratitude practices in pursuing grateful experiences, feelings and thoughts is through journaling. This method is recommended by all psychologists & scientists studying happiness and gratitude and has been scientifically proven by Dr. Emmons.
For tips on establishing a journaling habit to cultivate gratitude, see our article Best Way To Start Practicing Gratitude Is With Journaling.
As Dr. Emmons writes, “Gratitude is a new way of seeing. It is a stance, a posture, a way of positioning oneself so that one is attuned to the gifts that come one’s way.” Prayers of gratitude, savoring the moment and positive journaling are a great way to practice an attitude of gratitude every day. Our happiness depends on it.