Cycles of Happiness

Sinusoidal functions were, unquestionably, the bane of my existence while I was studying calculus in university. The added complexity of navigating between degrees to radians, needing to memorize a modicum of trigonometric identities, alongside rehearsing the phrase “Soh-Cah-Toa”, all confounded to the already obtuse (pun intended) nature of the problem sets. While these parameters made for challenges around differentiation and integration to be all that more engaging arithmetically, I lamented having to plot the graphical versions of said functions. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why professors insisted we manually sketch out variations of those waveform functions.

Though I may not have appreciated it back then, the cyclic nature of sinusoidal functions makes them the perfect representation of life’s ups and downs.

Hedonic Adaptation

The past few months have been tumultuous for me to say the least. I’ve been feeling a lack of fulfilment from my vocation, a disconnection amongst my relationships, and overall, a general lack of apathy towards most of my endeavours. Call it a quarter life crisis or an expected lull in the life of a Millennial; happiness has been a rare commodity of late that I’m gingerly rediscovering.

Ironically, this downturn in my mood happened at a time where things were going exceptionally well for me. And though the rapid phase shift in my temperament was peculiar, the compelling insight from this rough patch has been the way in which I’ve managed to slowly return to a baseline level of happiness.

Turns out, this hedonic adaptation, or the ability to return to a stable level of happiness in spite incurring positive or negative events, is a well vetted out theory. A famous study out of Northwestern University compared the happiness levels of two pools of participants, both of whom were subject to marquee life events: winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic. As expected, there was an initial spike in the average reported happiness of lottery winners — because who wouldn’t be happy to win millions of dollars — whereas those who lost the function of their legs had a drop off in their reported happiness. Contrary to expectation, however, is that six months after winning the lottery or six months after becoming paraplegic, both parties returned to their pre-event level of happiness; a happiness set point they had established.

Constant Inflexion Points

In the case of our cyclic sinusoidal functions, trigger events in life, that lead to changes in levels of happiness can be equated to inflexion points of the curve; the point at which, the slope of the function changes from positive to negative. For those of you who remember your trigonometric functions, you’ll recall, that these pivotal moments, happen at the maximum and minimum values of the function. In other words, they come at times where your happiness is at a peak or well.

The slope also correlates with an individuals sentiment towards their situation. For example, in a rut, the rate of change is at a constant negative until it reaches its inflexion point. During that time, it’s common to feel as if everything happens to be working against your favour. A client cancels on a meeting, you suffer an injury at the gym, and end up with a flat tire, all in a week where you’ve already cracked your phone screen and spilt coffee on yourself. On the flip side, when life is going well, it’s as if, sequentially, one positive thing after another occurs; the slope is positive.

Managing the Frequency

Unlike the traditional sine function, which has a static symmetry and predetermined frequency, happiness in real life can be influenced mid-function and is, therefore, dynamic in nature. The subjugation to abide by a preset time frame of good fortune and happiness matched by an equally misfortunate bout of sadness doesn’t apply. We can tap into a repertoire of mechanisms to stretch out the highs and claw our way out of a low; it just takes a lot of effort.

In her TED Talk titled: Getting Stuck in the Negative (and How to get Unstuck), Alison Ledgerwood, unpacks the added difficulty of breaking out of a negative frame of reference, which as discussed in my earlier post, not only deters happiness but also stifles creativity and cognitive ability.

Specifically, she cites a study wherein two groups of participants receive the same statistically accurate information about the effectiveness of a medical procedure; a 70% success rate Vs. a 30% failure rate. Unsurprisingly, the group that was pitched the information with the positive framing, was more likely to go forward with the procedure than the group who received the information with the failure rate.

As a follow-up, each group was given the re-framed take on the procedure and reassessed on their sentiment. The previously positive group, who now saw the procedure with a negative lens, were unlikely to move forward. Conversely, the initial negative group, having now seen the positive results of the procedure, were still unwilling to move forward; the negative frame of reference stuck.

This type of behaviour was also exhibited in the 2008 economic crisis wherein markets had recovered by 2010, but, consumer confidence failed to rebound at a commensurate rate due to the negative media.

Steady Medians

Our hedonic adaptation has hardwired us to be able to return to a baseline level of happiness irrespective of life’s trials and tribulations. The cyclic reality of the situation can be managed through mechanisms postulated by positive psychology.  Using cognitive biases such as anchoring and framing effects, implementing a daily gratitude exercise, or even journaling, are all ways in which we can develop a deeper resiliency towards managing an emotional low while shortening the time it takes to return to our baseline level of happiness.

Who would have thought, that at the nexus of trigonometry and positive psychology is where one can become a master of their emotion. Guess there was a purpose to plotting those graphs after all. 

Key Takeaway: Irrespective of life’s ups and downs, we have a way of normalizing our level of happiness through the hedonic adaptation. Managing the frequency of our happiness can be aided by using mechanisms put forth by positive psychology.

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