Learn to control your set-point


Researchers now know that we have a set-point for happiness. Oftentimes it’s compared to weight because it fluctuates. It’s also different for each person.

Before we learn what contributes to our set-point, let’s talk about what happiness is and isn’t.

Happiness isn’t…

  • making lots of money. According to research, the magic number in the US is about $75,000/year. That’s enough to take care of our needs, and some of our wants.
  • having lots of stuff.
  • ignoring our negative feelings and being “happy” all the time.

Happiness is…

  • how good we feel from one day to the next.
  • how satisfied we are with our lives.
  • a journey with ups and downs, and some neutral thrown in for good measure

Image credit: AbsolutVision via Pixabay

Why can’t we be happy all the time?

Remember how excited you were when you bought your new car?

When you bought your house, how long did your excitement last?

Are you still wearing those shoes you had to have?

Do you remember your first breakup?

Our brains love novelty — for a while.

When the newness wears off, it’s because hedonic adaptation has set in. We aren’t as enthralled with the shiny, new thing in our life.

On the flipside, we’re also not as upset about whatever negative event we experienced.

This happens because our bodies interpret intense good or bad experiences as stress. Our brain doesn’t know the difference. To maintain balance, we adjust to the newness of the stressor over time.

Our brains also like neutral. This is our normal operating mode.

This is good because to be in a constant state of stress is unhealthy. Research associates chronic stress with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Our first goal is to increase our opportunities to feel happiness, not be in a constant state of bliss. Our second goal is to accept our negative emotions. Suppressing them can lead to anxiety, feeling inauthentic, and depression.

Emotions, positive and negative are part of a healthy life.

What is this magic set-point researchers speak of?

I’m glad you asked!

Here’s how the numbers breakdown (roughly):

  • 50% genetics
  • 10% circumstances
  • 40% our thoughts, actions, and behaviors

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that right. We have control over about 40%. We might even be able to control the 10% depending on what those circumstances are.

Here are my questions for you:

  • What if you could experience more day-to-day happiness?
  • What if you could influence your set-point?

Would you do it?

In case you’re nodding your head, here are five ways researchers tell us we can do that!

  • Savor. The next time you go for a walk and see a beautiful sunset, stop and take it all in. Use all or as many of your senses as possible. You’ll soon realize that you can savor lots of moments throughout your day.
  • Express gratitude. A gratitude journal increases your happiness by about 25%, according to current research. In fact, a few hours journaling over a 3-week period can lead to positive effects for 6 months or more.
  • Aspire. Be hopeful. Make realistic goals for yourself, including mini-goals. Check them off one by one. As you see yourself accomplishing them you’ll create a positive feedback loop. More hope leads to more feelings of happiness.
  • Give. It’s not only the receiver who feels good in the exchange. When we give of our time, our money, or anything else, we get a big boost to our happiness level.
  • Empathize. This involves being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s perspective-taking. It’s non-judgmental. Included here are compassion and self-compassion. Compassion is action-oriented. We see someone in need of our help, and we provide it. Self-compassion is recognizing our inadequacies and treating ourselves with kindness.

A note on self-compassion

We all have that little voice in our head that criticizes us when we screw up. Researcher Kristin Neff has a lot to share about how to cope with that rude little bugger.

For us to experience self-compassion, we need to consider the following:

Self-kindness: We recognize and accept that we’re imperfect. We realize that we can’t always get what we want or be who we want to be every moment of our lives. Rather than beat ourselves up for mistakes, we cut ourselves slack.

Common humanity: We recognize that everyone experiences suffering. We’re not special and we’re not the only person who makes mistakes.

Mindfulness: Stop judging your thoughts and emotions. It’s that simple. Really? No, but it’s necessary for us to do this so that we can show self-compassion.

A quick primer on mindfulness

Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.

Image credit: John Hain via Pixxabay

What does self-compassion look like in action? (A play)

Scene 1

Writer Kori Miller has just received a rejection email from an editor. It’s the third one in two weeks. She’s frustrated, angry, and ready to give up freelance writing.

Little voice: Kori, your writing is horrible! Why do you even try? No one will ever read your stuff. You should quit.

Me: Wow, that’s harsh. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I’m gonna call somebody. I need to vent.

Scene 2

Me: (Calling best friend) Hey, this is Kori. I’m feeling a little, I don’t know, crappy. My latest pitch got rejected. They didn’t even tell me why. My writing must really suck.

Best friend: You’re being a little hard on yourself. Besides, you’ve been selling your work for a few years. Some people obviously like it. Maybe it wasn’t a good fit for their magazine. I’m sure you’ll find someone else who wants it.

Me: Yeah, you’re right. There’s always more places I can submit my work. Critics be damned! Thanks!

To practice self-compassion, you need to become your best friend. So, you ask yourself, “What would my best friend say to me right now?”

Chances are they’d show you compassion like my best friend did.


Happiness is part science and part art.

How will you increase your happiness today?

I’m a habit change aficionado, facilitator, and coach who loves helping others achieve their goals one bite-size step at a time.
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I’m a habit change aficionado, facilitator, and coach who loves helping others achieve their goals one bite-size step at a time.

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