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Happiness Set Points

Written by Dr. Farhan Shahzad and Sarah Davies-Robertson

A happiness set-point is the point on a continuum of happiness with which we are born. Happiness set points are given at birth and account for 40% of our overall happiness. While positive and negative events can change our happiness levels in the short-term, we eventually return to a baseline (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).

The happiness setpoint can be changed through neuroplasticity. This is done when we practise gratitude, optimism, and self-compassion. The neurons in the brain form more connections and that area of the brain becomes stronger. We must therefore aim to establish a growth-mindset. Since we can rewire our brain to learn anything we want, the only limitation is ourselves. We can increase and build on talents through discipline and hard work.

Mindfulness can help train the brain to feel more positive. Positive and negative emotions look different in the brain. When we experience positive emotions, there is much higher activity in the left prefrontal cortex, whereas negative emotions such as anxiety and stress are linked to increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex.

In an experiment on 41 biotechnology employees, where one cohort received mindfulness and the other cohort did not, those that received the training had heightened increase in leftright prefrontal cortex, which is the area that reflects positive emotions (Davidson et al. 2003). When you use mindfulness, you are training your brain in the art of happiness.

Breathing and Stress

When a person is under stress, their breathing changes. An anxious person will, typically, take short, shallow breaths, using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm. This type of breathing prolongs feelings of anxiety, and makes stress feel worse.

Controlled breathing, which is an awareness of our breathing style can cause us to feel more relaxed. This calms the nervous system and causes physiological changes such as:

• Feelings of calm

• Reduce stress hormones such as cortisol in the blood

• Reduce lactic acid build up

• Lower blood pressure and heart rate

• Increase energy

• Improve the immune system

How can we support clients in developing holistic wellbeing?

There are a number of ways we can help support a person to healthy wellness. The main aim is to breed further awareness so that a person can take ownership of their mental health. For someone with a complex mental illness, psychiatric support is needed, but someone looking to improve their emotional health, developing emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and an understanding of their triggers is key. Therapies such as mindfulness, ACT, and solution-focused therapy can be incredibly helpful. As is ensuring that their physical health is supported too.

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