As an adult, I would say I am socially adept with occasional bouts of extraversion. This has grown through a challenging adaptive process navigated through painful shyness & excessive blushing, through much social confusion & withdrawal. If I were the child that I was then, now, I would probably be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, however, would that have been accurate? How much does learnt behaviour play in a child’s forming of self? How much impact does environment play? Personality traits? Strengths, weaknesses & familial relationships?
I grew up in a household of emotional extremes, family deaths & much conflict. From this perspective, my early sullenness, awkwardness & seeming inability to express myself could be understandable, except for the fact that I had a younger brother who grew up alongside me.
His personality was very different to mine. He was naturally outgoing, cheeky, fun, adventurous & affectionate & exacted a very different response from those around him. Therefore, he was drawing a very different map of the world to the one I was drawing & our maps are what we use to make sense of the world, they become a part of the growing journey of our life & support the weaving of our stories. Dan McAdams (2008) explores life narratives comprehensively in his work, Alex Linley (2008), The VIA Institute, Don Clifton explore our innate strengths, talents & virtues individual to each of us that help to create the person that we are & Janette E McDonald explores the transformative power storytelling has in coming to terms with death & how sharing our personal stories of a loved one’s death can help us to a deepening sense of meaning & can aid in the ‘transformation in grieving, healing & living’ (Janette E. McDonald 2007). There are many different aspects to explore in the creating of a human & Sonja Lyubomirsky’s set point theory (2007) intrigued me as it did not resonate with my understanding of myself. The theory suggests that we are genetically pre-disposed to a fixed baseline which accounts for 50% of our happiness, 10% of this pie is due to circumstances & only 40% is within our control & can be used to increase our levels of happiness but that, due to hedonic adaptation (boredom setting in), we will naturally return to our personal, genetically pre-disposed set point.
In Positive Psychology: An Introduction (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000) it states that psychologists ‘know very little about the genetic contribution of gene-environment interaction & covariance’. In which case, how can a set point theory of happiness not be challenged, when researchers have stated that 50% is genetically determined & unchanging, yet in the next breath, revise this by saying that it can change but only in certain traumatic circumstances which then cause it to decrease permanently (Diener, Lucas, Scollon, 2006. Lucas 2005)
If the research bears out that the set point can be changed due to sustained long-term conditions, how can it be classed as a set point? It is then changeable & if it is changeable in the negative, why can it not be changeable in the positive?
Bruce Headey (2008b) challenged the set point theory which had originally dismissed the discordant data as being of exceptional circumstances (tragic loss of a child or long-term unemployment), however, further data revealed more results discordant with set point theory.
On a personal note, my set point of happiness has increased way beyond what it was as a child & adolescent. It could be argued that this is due to my utilizing a good portion of my 40% of the pie within my control.
However, research conducted on the increased happiness & well-being of people who recorded 3 positive things each day for 1 week, found that they had higher levels of happiness than when they had set out & lower incidence of depressive episodes (Seligman, M. S., 2005). This remained consistent when revisited 6 months later. Is it possible they were increasing their ‘set point’ through developing their 40% of the positive pie? In which case, through taking active responsibility for increasing one’s sense of well-being through happiness interventions, it could be argued that one could increase one’s set point. I would posit that it is dependent on the intervention used as to whether hedonic adaptation kicks in & levels of happiness return to what they were prior to the intervention. The German Socio-Economic Panel conducted a longitudinal 30 year study & found that levels of happiness increased & were sustainable & did not return to any set point; the intervention that was shown to have made the most impact on increased levels of well-being was compassion. It would seem that fostering compassion & gratitude has the ability to increase our levels of well-being & for that to be sustainable. I would posit that when pursuing hedonic pleasures only beneficial to self, the level of happiness is unsustainable and that, maybe, this is an evolutionary adaptation to promote the benefits of eudaimonic pursuits & goals through the medium of virtues & that the levels of happiness increase with the length of time that we invest in our altruistic purpose. It is in our species’ best interests to cultivate a means of future survival. Aristotle had much to say on ethical virtues being central to living a good life & the pursuit of higher purpose.
We need both hedonic pleasures of happiness, positive affect & life satisfaction & eudaimonic pursuits of meaningfulness, altruism & self-actualization. We are individuals & we are collective. I belong to me & I belong to us & our muscles of both hedonic pleasure & eudaimonia need to be exercised lest they atrophy & decrease our levels of both subjective well-being & psychological well-being.
If there is any type of set point (ball point figure) I think there needs to be more research into the part environment plays on an individual’s happiness & the importance a growth mindset, as defined by Carol Dweck, can have on well-being. It was my ability to create stories for myself as a child, that enabled me to find some sense of meaning to the circumstances I found myself in. As a child, we are powerless & vulnerable & therefore realising that you have a choice of how to ‘think’ about something in order to feel differently about it, would be an empowering tool for a child to have. Within my job supporting families in crisis, it is the circumstances that some are in, a lack of food, imminent homelessness, shame, abject poverty, that would certainly seem to have more than a 10% impact on their happiness & sense of well-being. Yet, even in times of crisis, there are uplifting, inspiring stories of people who have kept a sense of serenity & inner peace in the face of the most heart-breaking of times & become examples of hope & courage.
Thoughts drawn from:
Headey, B. W. (2008b) Life goals matter to happiness: A revision of set point theory. Social Indicators Research, 86, 213-231
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Aristotle’s Ethics. May 1 2001 plato.stanford.edu
Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. On happiness & human potentials: review of research on hedonic & eudaimonic well-being. Annual Rev Psychol 2001 52: 141-66
McAdams, D. P. Personal narratives & the life story. Chapter 8 Handbook of of Personality: Theory & research. NY. Guildford Press, 2008
Lyubomirsky, S. The How of Happiness. Sphere, 2007
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihaly, M. (2000) Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, Vol. 55. No 1, 5-14
Lucas, R. E. (2005) Happiness can change: A longitudinal study of adaptation to disability. Manuscript submitted for publication, Michigan State University, East Lansing
Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N (2006) Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 301-314
Linley, A. Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself & others. Capp Press, 2008.