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The happiness quotient

Waiting. That’s what most of us do on a practically habitual basis. Waiting for admission into a Master’s programme, a plum job, a dream date. Or, waiting to get married, rent an apartment, buy a house. At a more prosaic level, we may wait for our acne to clear out, the order from Amazon to arrive, or simply the weekend. We expend an inordinate amount of time and energy waiting because we truly believe that the change we anticipate will enhance the quality of our lives. And, we stubbornly cling to this position even though life’s circumstances don’t really alter out well-being as profoundly as we think they should.

Positive psychology researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, asserts that a person’s happiness level rests on three dimensions. First, everyone is born with a heritable predisposition that determines your happiness set point. The ever-smiling babies are more likely to have sunnier temperaments while their distraught peers may tend to see the glass as half-empty. So, your set point essentially ordains whether you are characteristically a smiley or a frowny.

Second, fluctuations in life’s vagaries do raise or reduce our happiness levels. When you earn the coveted promotion, your joy surges initially. But within a few weeks, your euphoria melts away and before you know it, you are back at your set point. This tendency to swing back to our happiness set point is termed “hedonic adaptation.” While studies indicate that married people are typically happier than singletons, Lyubomirsky says that the “happiness boost” from marriage usually lasts for only a couple of years, with each partner seesawing back to their baseline.

If hedonic adaptation tapers our joys, what about our misfortunes? Fortunately, the same principle helps us cope with our woes as well. Suppose you meet with a road accident, your happiness levels will definitely plummet. With your leg in a cast and searing back pain, you may be squarely unhappy. But as you hobble back to normalcy, your mood also elevates.

Surprisingly, even if your accident resulted in more permanent damage such as paralysis or an amputation, your happiness level would eventually bounce back to its set point. Lyubomirsky writes, ‘we have a phenomenal ability to recover much of our happiness after a debilitating illness or accident.’ Yet, if you ask people if they think they would be unhappier after losing a limb, most would readily agree that they would be devasted. Apparently, we are more resilient than we believe.

Happiness level

Most people maintain that the above two factors, innate temperament and life’s circumstances, circumscribe our happiness. Well, not entirely. Lyubomirsky argues that even as your happiness set point is genetically determined, it doesn’t imply that “your happiness level cannot be changed.” Researchers have found that we can ‘construct’ our happiness by our “intentional activities.” In other words, “the things we do” can have a fairly profound effect on how we experience our lives.

While we can control our circumstances to an extent, many situations are beyond our pale. But even if we cannot rewrite our destinies, how we choose to spend our days or direct our attention can have a significant contribution to our happiness levels. So, regardless of the genetic lottery you were born with or your lot in life that the stars ordained for you, you can still enhance your happiness by following certain strategies. In her book, Lyubomirsky offers a dozen tips that can enhance your day to day well-being. As each of us is unique, you may pick the approaches that appeal to your personality and predilections. In next month’s column, I will lay out Lyubomirsky’s blue print. Apologies for keeping you waiting!

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 12:17:24 AM |

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