For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the phrase, “Happiness is a choice”. That if I felt upset or emotionally flat it was because I was making a choice to feel that way. Like why didn’t I just opt for Door #2 where glitter fairies and unicorns lived?! I mean, come on, it’s so simple! {sigh}  And if I had a dollar for every “Choose Happy” Instagram photo that’s crawled across my screen, I’d be a millionaire. No shit. But it turns out these catchy happiness memes and over-simplified one-liners of advice are only that… catchy and over-simplified.

Thanks to some nifty research in the field, we now know that happiness is not just a choice. In fact, it is our very own DNA, our genetics, that greatly determine our unique “happiness set point” – the level of happiness to which we will habitually return to and reside at.

You can imagine that happiness is an elevator that is in motion throughout the day. When you’re ecstatic, you’re skyrocketed to Floor 160 of the Burj Khalifa. When in despair, you’re sunk to the depths of a parking garage that’s been dug impossibly deep. But at some point, your elevator is recalled to its regular station and you return to your happiness set point, whether that’s flat-lined, kinda/sorta happy, down in the dumps, obnoxiously upbeat, or anywhere in between.

This set point was discovered as an outcome of a famous study that tracked people who had won the lottery – what many people think of as the ticket to the eternal kingdom of joy. Within a year, however, these lucky winners returned to approximately the same level of happiness they’d experienced before their windfall. Surprisingly, the same was true for people who became paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they also returned to their original, genetically determined set point.

What is Your Happiness Set Point?

While the study focused on some pretty impactful and rare events, it’s easy to see this play out in smaller, more macro ways, during run-of-the-mill, day-to-day of life.

See if you can relate to one of these scenarios:

Let’s say you’re hanging out on the familiar floor of “Meh” – the happiness set point so graciously gifted from your DNA – but then along comes some good news. Maybe it’s a job promotion, a kudo from your boss, or an email from your ex stating you were right all along, it was his fault, and he’ll never love as big as when he was with you. You feel a rush of electricity course through your veins and you wonder, as joy explodes from every cell in your body, if your feet are actually touching the ground.

For a short time, you float on the bubble that has lifted you to the top echelons of happiness. And during this time, you imagine that you have finally “arrived.” That your birthright – this level of bliss – is yours for the keeping. But it’s not. Because after a few days (or minutes!) you find yourself drifting back down to the familiar feeling of “meh” until the next shot in the arm comes along to goose your joy.

Or perhaps you’re someone who makes their home further up the scale where happiness is a constant companion. No matter what life throws at you, you bounce back with relative ease and with the usual pep in your step. We describe these people as “resilient”, “optimistic”, “happy go-lucky” or as having a “sunny disposition”. In my more cynical moments I have secretly suspected these folks were the result of partial lobotomies. But turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s baked in; we are born this way.

This is good news or not-so-good news depending on what your particular set point is. If your set point is on the higher end, then odds are you have less of a struggle with experiencing joy and life is generally enjoyable. On the other hand, if you are predisposed to a lower set point, then happiness is likely a struggle. So what can we do, if anything?

Is Your Set Point Fixed?

The good news is that research has shown there’s a bit of wiggle room. As Gretchen Rubin explains in her book, “The Happiness Project”:

According to current research in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10 to 20 percent; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts.”

Okay. So if you’re a “half glass empty” kind of person then you’ll view this as being screwed since 60-70% of our happiness set point is determined by things difficult to control. But if you’re a “half glass full” or hopeful type, then this extra 30-40% represents a HUGE opportunity for raising the elevator on where your happiness rests.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  — Meister Eckhart

How to Raise Your Happiness Set Point

You can think of your happiness set point as a muscle. If you want it to build, then consistent training is required. Whereas we will atrophy and give our set point back over to genetics should laziness ensue. When I look at these two options I prefer the first, with intentionality and consistency being the key.

Here are 3 proven ways we can work our happiness up:

1) GIVING: In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland discovered that even thinking about doing something generous has real mood-boosting benefits in the brain. In the study, researchers told 50 people they’d be receiving about $100 over a few weeks. Half of the people were asked to commit to spending the money only on themselves, while the other half were asked to spend it on someone else.

The result? Those who agreed to spend money on other people made more generous decisions throughout the experiment compared to those who spent the money on themselves. They also reported higher levels of happiness after the experiment was over and MRI scans performed during the experiment, showed higher activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness.

The takeaway: Give often and in small ways but avoid creating an expectation associated with the act. Do it just to do it.

2) GRATITUDE. In his book, “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier”, psychologist Robert Emmons analyzed several studies on gratitude and found that practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. This is massive considering the portion of the happiness set point we can control is between 20 and 30 percent!

There are many ways to practice gratitude, but the most common is keeping a gratitude journal. Every day write 3-10 things you are grateful for and why. And don’t just practice gratitude when good things happen. Find it in the dark days when it’s harder to locate and, in doing so, you’ll become more and more attuned to locating and sustaining positivity.

The takeaway: Make gratitude a 365 day practice. No. Matter. What.

3) MINDFULNESS. Much of our dis-ease – or lack of sustainable joy –  is a result of our compulsion to look for what’s missing. If I were to name the greatest thief of joy, it would be the “if only” mindset. Instead of remaining present to what we have, we focus on what we lack. We believe we would be happy “If only… I was smarter, felt more loved, had more time off, lost ten pounds, etc.

Research has shown that even a short-term daily practice of mindfulness increases our base level of happiness long term. Connecting to and remaining present with what is occurring right now trains the brain to rest in contentment, instead of scanning for threats.

The takeaway: Commit to a daily mindfulness practice for at least 4 weeks. If you have time to read this, you have time to meditate.

The Thing About Happiness

One phrase you can count on when it comes to happiness is that “Happiness is an inside job.” Yes, our DNA and a handful of other determining factors set our base, but we can greatly influence this by practicing gratitude, generosity, and mindfulness. You can take it from me.

I have been through some pretty monumental shit storms in my life. My therapist started calling me “The Buoy” because of how I could right myself and find positivity within short order. That was only because I was deep into all of these practices. When I’m not practicing and life hurls more crap my way, believe me, “the buoy” morphs into an anchor. But this much is my choice. So while happiness isn’t just a choice, you do have one very powerful choice.

How do you raise your happiness set point?

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Halley Bock is the author and founder of Life, Incorporated.

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