Thanks to endless advice I have read and listened to — from dozens of people I respect, for the last two weeks I have forced myself into participating in a slightly altered version of a gratitude journal. Every night I have sat down and grabbed a notebook where on one page I will scribble specific times throughout the day that I felt genuine happiness, and on the opposite page I add times that I felt not so happy. I creatively titled these *happy page* and *sad page*. I’ve had to battle through one or two hand cramps from jotting down the various occasions throughout my day, but it has been well worth it. I’ve also learned a ton from such a simple activity, but what strikes me most interesting is the glaring difference I see when comparing the two pages I have written out.
For background — I am someone with no real knowledge of psychology, (unless you count a couple of books and podcasts) and highlighting these happy and sad moments in my day made me curious. I wanted to understand how and why our happiness changes over time. After a few Google searches and falling trap to YouTube’s auto-play feature, I unintentionally dug way too deep into a theory well known in the psychology as the Hedonic Treadmill, or Hedonic Adaptation. “A hedonic treadmill is the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill model, as a person makes more money, their expectations and desires rise in tandem. So the rise in income results in no permanent gain in happiness.” The ideology that we have a base level of happiness was derived from this popular study, which tracked the self-reported happiness of individuals who had recently experienced life changing events.
Rather than trying to explain the study on my own, here is the conclusion that I skillfully was able to copy and paste. “Study 1 compared a sample of 22 major lottery winners with 22 controls and also with a group of 29 paralyzed accident victims who had been interviewed previously. As predicted, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events.” While we can assume there were initially extreme emotional reactions from these events, the previous is stating that after some time the participants gradually either progressed or digressed back to the same base level of happiness.
It is easy to look at your own life and see major life events that have impacted you positively and negatively, but for most of us these events are few and far between. You become a new mother/uncle/grandma/etc →happiness levels (hopefully) through the roof. A loved one you were close to passes away →you experience sadness like never before. We are more likely to see small fluctuations in happiness daily/weekly/monthly, to a lesser degree than those life altering events. Having become enthralled with learning about Tesla and SpaceX after reading an Elon Musk biography, here’s a perfect illustration of the ups and downs we may experience, in line with the Hedonic Treadmill —and of course based around my recent obsession.
Eventually I was able to escape the theoretical hole (pun intended) I dug myself into and I took a step back to digest what I had been learning about. Now I believe the Hedonic Treadmill theory makes a ton of sense and holds true often, as the study and graph show us, but it also feels like a bleak and gloomy way to view the future. Is the study saying that we can never make lasting emotional gains? Or is it simply letting us know that one major shift in life will not make or break us. If it is making the assumption that no matter what you do in life you will eventually return back to this base level of happiness, there will be no motivation or incentive to improve your current conditions. Personally, I didn’t like the sounds of that at all — so having the unrelenting optimism that my mother forever instilled in me (thank you mom), I set out to cherry-pick information or a quote that would show the contrary. That we are able to create improvements in long-term happiness — as seen below.
“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances . . . under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.” — Martin Seligman
What we can certainly take from the Hedonic Treadmill theory is that our natural state of emotion is not euphoria. We all live on a giant scale of feelings and emotions (←sports fans click here) that is constantly fluctuating. What I am now aware of having tracked my emotions and what is surrounding, is how I am able to make decisions that lead to incremental boosts in happiness every day — and hopefully for the long haul.
When I look back into my notebook now, it becomes obvious that these moments I’m writing down on the *happy page*, are all repeatable actions that I can choose to do over and over and (yes) over again. Nearly everything that boosts my level of happiness in a day is an intentional action that I had complete control over. By taking note of what makes me happy, I can choose to incorporate these in my daily life. Cooking, rock climbing, playing pick-up basketball, FaceTime with friends and family. Looking at the entirety of the list, I am actually not writing anything on this page that was a purely a result of circumstance.
However…on the opposite side of my notebook, the *sad page* tells a much different story. Nearly everything on this side was a product of circumstance outside of my control. This list included: roommate leaving out dirty dishes, rainy and cold on the weekend, coworker not listening to a story I’m telling, random guy in a Prius cutting me off. Let me rephrase this: I was not expecting any of these things. I was hoping for better situations, and when I was let down I was becoming upset for for things outside of my control. I have been stressing over circumstances that even if I attempted to change them, the end result would be the same.
Stress is created when the reality of our world does not meet our anticipated model we created in our head.
Since beginning this process of journaling, I have been attempting to become more aware of those situations out of my control that are affecting me negatively, and letting them pass by. I have learned that to add more mood boosting activities into my daily routine, to not leave my happiness to happenstance. For example: While I am generally happy in the mornings, I do not wake up on Cloud 9. If there is someone out there that opens their eyes in the morning and is instantaneously cheerful, I have yet to meet them. We are all human and can agree that getting out of a comfortable and warm bed (especially in the winter), frankly sucks. When I wake up I know that I am at, or below, my base level of happiness. But by choosing to act onactivities from the *happy page* in the morning, like coffee and light reading, this helps boost my happiness and unfolds into a great start to my day.
There are far too many happenings in my day that I’ve let pass by, without ever giving a second thought to how they constantly affect my emotional well-being. Until now I’ve never take a step back to view how I respond to everyday events. Without this journaling experience, I may have never become aware of some highs and lows in my own life without writing down these times day after day