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Your Happiness Set Point is a Myth

Silhouette of a young man looking at the starry sky

Perhaps you've read the hype: each of us is born with a "genetic set point", which roughly determines our lifelong, baseline level of happiness. It's typically expressed as roughly 50% of what makes up our specific level of happiness, along with 10% life circumstances, and another 40% "personal outlook". Maybe you read The Happiness Advantage, watched some TED talks, started a gratitude practice, journaling or meditation. You found some temporary respite, but all evidence pointed to the sad reality that you drew the short straw around your happiness set point. Life, inevitably, returned to its baseline. Perhaps, like me, you even wished that some fatal illness or accident would take you from your misery. After all, who wants to endure a lifetime of suffering and then look back on your death bed at the wreck of a broken life?

Greens, deep blues and purples of the night sky shine behind branches of a crooked tree

I'm not going to tell you the research is flawed, because frankly, it feels pretty irrelevant when it contradicts personal experience. What I am here to tell you is that it's possible to find complete freedom from the tyranny of your mind and the suffering it causes. I know it's possible, because it happened to me. 

Now, the bad news. I don't really know why or how it happened, though I have some good guesses and can offer some insights. The best I can do, I think, is to offer the promise of possibility. I can, however, describe what happened. 

I was on a 6 hour road trip, listening to Eckhart Tolle with the cruise control set and miles of pavement ahead. I've listened to Practicing the Power of Now dozens of times over the years—a roughly 4 hour, condensed version of his best selling book. As I drove, he was talking about the pain body, which is his label for the energetic patterns that become crystalized through our life experience and often manifest in our relationships. "The pain body" is what causes us to respond in disproportionate and predictable ways to situations. They are "the buttons" from the phrase "(s)he really knows how to push my buttons". 

The moment of awakening, for me, came from the simple realization that I had become addicted to my pain, and to the story that my mind told me about my life. I was actually choosing to suffer. Somehow, I had mistaken my unhappy story for my life. I want to be clear here: you are not your unhappy story. As long as we believe the story, the lie, our happiness set point is in effect. Once we see the illusion, however, a whole new world of possibility emerges. 

This moment of clarity happened roughly two months ago, and in the intervening weeks, I've awakened into a new reality that is nearly devoid of suffering. Yes, I feel pain, even more acutely at times than before. Pain and suffering are not the same thing, however, and I'm happy to leave the latter behind. If I were to list the things in my life that previously felt very real and heavy—but are now almost entirely absent from my experience—that list would include:

  • guilt
  • shame
  • resentment
  • inadequacy
  • anxiety
  • addiction
  • irritation

I offer that as a promise of what's possible, not what's inevitable. The main takeaway, however, is that for my entire life, the emotions and experiences in the list above were the defining contours of my emotional life. They were my set point, and provided the experiential boundaries of my happiness.

I don't have a 5 step program to offer you, on sale now! One of the recommendations I can make is to cultivate a meditation practice, if you don't already have one. Despite the enduring pain of my unhappy self, I've been putting "my tush on the cush" as a friend used to say, nearly every day for 20 years now. I've never "been good" at meditation, but I fondly remember the moment, decades ago now, when I decided that I was going to stop trying to be good at meditating and simply return, as often as I felt able, to the present moment. For me, letting go of the struggle was a key ingredient, even if a quiet mind remained elusive. It's also a good metaphor, I think, for this transformation that has happened in my life.

The silhouette of a young man as the sun crosses the horizon

My daily reality is now profoundly different than before. I've learned the truth what it means that "it's heaven all the way to heaven, just as it's hell all the way to hell." If I want to avoid dying the sad, bitter and resentful old man that I've always feared, the best (and perhaps only) way of doing that is to stop being that person in the present moment. By letting go of the story of my unhappy self, I now see how much beauty each moment holds. It's not a gratitude practice—it's the joy of being, expanding fully into my mind, heart and present moment awareness. It's there, dozens if not hundreds of times each day, if I let it. I'm not following a script or set of rules. I'm simply dropping the old, repetitive story. My "buttons" are no longer activating predictable and repetitive responses. My "happiness set point" has reset. Stop believing the lie. Wake up to the life you've always wanted for yourself. You may find, as I did, that you already have it.

Photos by Eli Froehlich