Philosophy of Moderation – Part 2: Emotional

I am admittedly not so qualified to write this entry.  If I had named it “mental” and gone on about self-discipline and such then perhaps I would have a bit more merit.  However, as you saw in my last post, I have to write about what I’m feeling, and this is a good time to talk about emotional moderation, when it’s needed, and when maybe it isn’t.

A few posts back I talked about about what it is to be happy.  I struggle with that a bit as my natural state is to be quite neutral/cold.  On the plus side, I typically don’t get bent out of shape or overly depressed about a lot of things (there are, however, specific things, such as last week’s rape article…)  On the downside, getting me overly excited about any specific concept is tough.  I’m set at a certain level of “happy” that is very moderate.  Though my level is probably lower than your average well-adjusted “happy” person, for most people being set at a certain level of “happiness” is not a new concept.

Hedonic-Treadmill

A bit oversimplified but you get the idea.

The Hedonic Treadmill is the concept that humans tend to return to a specific level of happiness despite major events or life changes (be they positive or negative.)  In essence it compares our emotional state to walking on a treadmill, in which we simply need to keep walking (living) at a comfortable, indefinite pace in order to stay in place (so essentially our “natural” state of happiness.)  When something awesome happens, the treadmill turns up allowing you to run and gain more (happiness), faster.  But inevitably (psychologically) you’ll get tired and have to take it back down to your natural pace.  Likewise when something terrible happens, the treadmill slows to a crawl, slowing your progress and setting you back until you regain your energy, allowing you to return to normal pace.  Another (perhaps less confusing) way to look at it is like a thermostat, your normal happiness is set at a certain level.  The outside world might make you warmer or colder for a while, but inevitably your thermostat will bring you back to the temperature you are naturally set at.

The case is often made with lottery winners and those with near unthinkable amounts of money to the average person.  We always think “Man!  If I had that kind of money I would always be happy!”  But the truth is, those that do have that sort of money are no happier than you are most days.  People adapt to basically anything (good or bad,) and no matter what we have, we always want more (especially if we think we can’t have it…) Some of us are better at it than others, so it may happen faster for some, but inevitably everyone returns to that set point.  Be it Lottery, New Car, Sex, Marriage, Children, Car Accidents, Losing Your Job, Divorce and even a death in the family, life events can extend for months or even years, but your base happiness with eventually attempt to return to a certain level of happiness regardless.

Sometimes "Happy Work" means going to the beach in your suit...

Sometimes “Happy Work” means going to the beach in your suit…

Initially this idea was a little disturbing to me.  To say that no matter what happens we’re always going to achieve the same general level of happiness makes it sound like striving for anything is pointless.  But fortunately it actually gives us a purpose:  Find a way to raise your treadmill/thermostat/hedonic set point.  It sounds simple but naturally it’s more difficult than simply making yourself happy.  You have to figure out what moves you, and what you can consistently to do to make yourself happier than you are now.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s (obviously) happy work.

But there’s a flip side:  depression.  Depression (in this case) is basically the state in which perpetual negative circumstances / state of mind keep you from returning to your normal happiness setting.  This can be any number of consistent negative influences: abusive relationships (usually family or spouse), imprisonment, consistent anxiety, chronic illness and drug/alcohol abuse are fairly common examples.  Something key to note here is that this doesn’t mean the depressed person is “broken”, simply that a consistent negative stimuli is acting as a barrier to keep them from returning to their set point of happiness.  Unfortunately it’s probably possible that an extended duration of some of these could even lower the setting on somebody’s hedonic treadmill.  But the good news is, in most cases studies show that once the negative situation is removed/resolved, the majority of those experiencing this depression bounced back to their hedonic set point.

So, how do we turn up our happiness setting?  Nobody knows for sure.  To some extent it will vary depending on the individual.  Most recent research points to some fifty percent of our happiness/hedonic set point being determined by genetics.  Personally, I’m not willing to allow some unseen statistic (whether factual or not) to control how I feel, so I’m not going to think about the half that I supposedly can’t control.  Instead I’ll focus on what I can.  A pretty interesting study by psychologists Headey and Wearing (1989) suggested that our position on the spectrum of the stable personality traitsneuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience (wiki links for you psych majors that want to dive in…) accounts for how we experience and perceive life events, and therefore indirectly contributes to our happiness levels (Elaborated via handy wiki-table:)

Neuroticism Extraversion Openness to experience
Anxiety Warmth Fantasy
Hostility Gregariousness Aesthetics
Depression Assertiveness Feelings
Self-consciousness Activity Actions
Impulsiveness Excitement/Sensation Seeking Ideas
Vulnerability to Stress Positive Emotion Values

The goal is minimizing your neuroticism category, while trying to increase your extraversion and openness to experience.  This somewhat supports my longstanding philosophy that experiences are the key to being happy (over material gains… more on this in a few.)  Don’t let the term “extraversion” mislead you though, you don’t have to be an extrovert to be happy, as you can see under that category many of those aspects are present in many an introvert.

wjn-1So WHAT experiences then?  There is no clear answer due to individual reactions to individual experiences.  What should be noted though is that your hedonic set point is, in fact, chemical.  As such experiences that bring temporary satisfaction through chemical interaction (such as drug/alcohol use) can have the reverse affect over time requiring more of said substance to even maintain your hedonic set point. Instead research indicates that maintaining a positive outlook / attitude, adaptability and altruism (due to the personal satisfaction reward) are the keys to staying on the positive side of your hedonic set point.  As a result, reinforcing or strengthening those aspects of yourself should theoretically allow you raise your base happiness.  This might help explain why those with a great deal of those with an abundance of money who appear relaxed and/or good natured are known to be highly involved and give a great deal to charity, whereas others who are equally endowed on a material level but less giving often appear more uptight, irritated or generally disagreeable.

So, long story short:  We all have a pre-set level of happiness we return to.  We should endeavor to live in order to raise that setting for ourselves and those around us.  Money is fine, but it is best used as a key to happy experiences and to help others be happier.  This, in turn, will raise our happiness.  There will be setbacks, but we are, in fact programmed to return to our hedonic set point and as such, no matter what happens, we always have a chance to make more happiness so long as we can get past any circumstances keeping us from that point.

That's a lot of experiences... just sayin'..

That’s a lot of experiences… just sayin’..

On a personal level, as stated above I am an experience seeker.  I seek those moments of bliss and euphoria (note: NOT drug related in any way… though maybe occasionally some scotch or vodka.)  But it is not so much the moment itself that contributes to my hedonic set point, but rather the positive memory of the moment that gets better and better as time goes on.  Though extremely selfish, I am also fairly altruistic towards the people I believe are worthy of it.  Going back to the title (though I haven’t said much of it thus far) I remain at a very moderate emotional state, which allows me to be objective in situations where other’s emotions may get the best of them.  However, that leaves me more vulnerable to falling into negativity, and if I do not properly moderate those feelings, they can hold me back from the experiences that would help me feel better in the first place.  All that said, who doesn’t want to be happier?  I think anyone who tells themselves that is lying.  Maybe when it comes to being happy, the philosophy of moderation should instead be the philosophy of abundance.

calvinandhobbes6

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