Sunday, February 7, 2016

Stuck With The Happiness We Have ... Or With Another Bad Theory?

The notion that there is a set point for happiness implies that even when we experience increases (or decreases) in happiness, they are  only temporary and, we will eventually return to our baseline, our set point.  Long story short, we are being told that happiness doesn't change that much over time. We are likely to be stuck with what we have, or don't have.

Is it such a the big deal if our happiness is "fixed" like other traits, as some say?  Well, what kind of life will there be for those who don't know happiness or don't experience enough of it?   Tough luck for them I suppose.  What about if I have always been a little bit happy, but never really happy, at least not for very long?  Am I out of luck too?  What can I do as a  parent if happiness is just something children are born with or maybe not so much?  How can we possibly claim that our mental health interventions are effective if we can't even fix happiness (don't know how to fix happiness, or believe it can't be fixed)?  If we can't make lasting improvements in happiness, why waste so much time and money trying?  This is pretty troubling news.

Maybe we had better take a second look at our ideas about happiness.  I would like to use basketball as an analogy.  Let's say I am a short basketball player, about five feet nine inches tall, averaging eight points a game.  I score more points when I play against shorter or less skilled players, less against really good teams or teams with really tall players.  Overall though, I average about eight points a game.  So, if I go along playing basketball without growing taller, should I buy into this idea that my average probably is my set point?  Is eight points a game, like happiness, about it for me?

Suppose I had the opportunity to enroll in a quality sports education program.  I learned better ball handling, worked on my jump shot, and honed my skills at the foul line.  I'll bet I could better my old average and knock this set point idea for a loop.

Unfortunately and sadly, set point thinking reinforces beliefs that our happiness "average" is fixed, something we can't do much about.  At one time, our thinking that the world was flat was fixed.  So, we believed we could not do much about that either.

Give me a brake!  I know that most of  my clients report and evidence that their happiness average has improved substantially and, I am sure that this is true for others as well.  A more likely and better explanation of this set point  position is that our happiness only appears to be set because we lack the emotional education that would enable us to change it.

So let's not get bogged down here in yet another ill-guided theory of why we can't improve our happiness and well-being.  Instead, all of us, especially parents, educators, and therapists, need to upgrade our training, skills, and tools so that we can and do better our averages for happiness. In the meantime, for happiness sake, don't fall in love this set-point thinking.

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