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We go about seeking happiness in all the wrong ways. It’s the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow we relentlessly pursue, whether a new piece of tech, a bigger house, or a fancy car.

Or, more often than not, it’s embedded in our limiting beliefs about success. ‘I must earn X amount a year to be successful’, ‘If only I was prettier, I’d be happy’, ‘When I have an open-plan kitchen diner, I know I’ll have made it in life’.

I wanted to write this article because feeling content is something I’ve struggled with. I’m the sort of person who’s always strived for more, more, more – convinced that the next milestone will finally be the thing that brings me happiness.

By the time I was thirty, I’d worked hard and bought my dream house in the country with my fiancé. I had a master’s degree from Oxford University. I even had the golden retriever puppy. But I still felt empty and unfulfilled.

I would encourage you to go out and get everything you ever wanted as early as possible in life, because when you do, you’ll find out first-hand that it isn’t the promised land.

So here’s the science behind your happiness levels – and what you can do to raise them more sustainably.

What’s Stopping Us From Feeling Happy?

The Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic adaption graph

Habitualisation devours objects, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.

Victor Shklovsky

If you’re interested in psychology, you may have heard of the hedonic treadmill theory (also known as hedonic adaptation). In short, it posits that individuals have a baseline level of happiness. Despite experiencing significant ups and downs in life, people tend to return to this set baseline.

Research supports this idea, with studies rather incredibly showing that lottery winners and individuals who have lost a limb eventually experience similar levels of happiness over time (see above diagram).

Whilst we assume we’re masters of our own well-being and continue to pursue pleasure after pleasure, it’s been proven that genetic factors actually contribute much more prominently to one’s happiness set point, accounting for up to 50% of variation in subjective well-being.

This suggests that whilst life events can temporarily impact happiness, overall well-being is largely determined by a combination of genetics and personal adaptation to changing circumstances.

Comparison Theory

Hedonic treadmill diagram

Comparison is the thief of all joy.

I remember telling myself that if I got a first in my Creative Writing degree from Oxford, I’d never need to achieve anything ever again – I’d have proved myself once and for all by reaching the pinnacle of academic success.

How long do you think that lasted? Well, I’d say maybe two weeks, if that. Because my classmates didn’t stop there – they all went on to get book deals. I very quickly realised that a degree certificate meant very little in comparison with their real-world achievements. I may have a first, but I wasn’t a published author! And all of a sudden, the goalposts moved again.

The hedonic treadmill is bad enough, but when we compound it with comparison, it gets a whole lot uglier. Comparison theory suggests that individuals determine their level of happiness by comparing themselves to others in their social environment. This constant comparison can lead to feelings of inferiority or superiority, impacting overall satisfaction and well-being.

Unsurprisingly, people who frequently engage in social comparison may struggle to maintain lasting happiness, as they continually evaluate their own circumstances against others.

Are We All Doomed for Eternity?

Most discussions of these theories are pretty depressing. This is because they rather dangerously lead to the conclusion that we are all powerless to hedonic adaption, with little autonomy or agency over our own lives.

However, in my own experience, this isn’t entirely true. And the science supports this, too. Although happiness levels may have a genetic component, they are more malleable than first thought and can be raised through strategic activities.

Rather than thinking external circumstances are the key to our happiness, we must focus instead on incrementally raising our base level of happiness by moving the locus of control back within. This is not through huge spikes in dopamine levels or showy life events, but by shifting towards a more intentional lifestyle.

Positive Psychology research suggests that a real solution for permanent, stable and lasting happiness is found in the intangibles, such as how we think and how we lead our lives. It’s the mindful things pursued with consistency which have the power to rewire and shape us.

I don’t mean to say that we should never strive for anything or have goals, but by actively engaging in practices that promote inner well-being, we can influence and alter our happiness set points and experience lasting positive changes in our lives.

13 Ways to Intentionally Raise Your Base Level of Happiness

When you rely less on external circumstances and do the inner work to prioritise your happiness, you can achieve a level of peace – no matter where you happen to find yourself in life. The key is to be found in your daily routine; developing healthy habits, appreciating life more slowly, and actively designing a life you love.

This not only helps you to feel better within yourself and weather life’s storms more gracefully – it also has the added benefit of making you a better human being.

Living with more intention is like developing a muscle – it takes practice, time and patience. But it’s worth it! Here are some of the strategies that have helped me to shift my own happiness baseline:

#1 Get the basics right

Cultivating self-love is key to improving happiness. But let’s be clear – I don’t mean indulging in a spa day every now and then. I mean having daily self-discipline and getting the basics right.

There are so many things we strive for in life whilst forgoing the very fundamentals of self-care – the holy trifecta of diet, exercise and sleep. When you eat healthy meals, engage in regular exercise, and prioritise consistent sleep every day, you send a powerful signal to your subconscious brain that you’re worthy of respect.

By putting yourself first and nurturing your well-being, you can’t help but elevate your baseline levels of happiness over time. Always remember that taking good care of yourself isn’t selfish – it’s essential for enhancing your overall quality of life, which in turn allows you to give more freely to others. This is the bare minimum we should strive for every single day.

#2 Develop a gratitude practice

Girl journaling

Practising daily gratitude may seem cliché and something you’ve heard a thousand times before, but never underestimate the transformative power of a consistent gratitude practice.

Instead of allowing life’s unpredictable events to control our emotions, practising gratitude empowers us to take charge of our reactions. By focusing on the positive aspects of our experiences, we regain control over our emotional well-being and get stronger in the face of adversity.

A simple way to do this is to invest in a gratitude journal or simply jot down three things you’re thankful for every day. Over time, this practice will train your mind to seek the positive in every situation, helping you to develop a more optimistic outlook. It will also help you to feel happier with where you are right now, rather than outsourcing your happiness to external events or a hazy point in the future.

#3 Revamp your inner self-talk

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

Epictetus

If we really want to question the role that external events play in our lives, we can look to these words from stoic philosopher Epictetus nearly 2,000 years ago.

Our inner dialogue significantly impacts our well-being, yet we’re rarely taught how to talk to ourselves kindly. I don’t know about you, but I have often been my own harshest critic, pointing out all my flaws and holding myself to ridiculously high standards.

Instead, we must intentionally shift our inner voice from self-deprecating to self-compassionate.

Critically, this transformation does not change external events in any way, shape or form. It simply strengthens our resilience and helps us to reframe things with a more compassionate perspective.

When you work on consistent self-praise and treat yourself with the same love and encouragement you’d offer a close friend, you’ll feel better equipped to confront challenging situations and create a foundation of inner peace. It also helps you to validate yourself, as opposed to relying on the external validation of others.

#4 Nurture meaningful relationships

A group of friends

I think it was Morrissey who said he could count his true friends on one hand.

In a world of likes, shares and DMs, our relationships are becoming ever more shallow and superficial. However, fostering meaningful relationships is crucial for lasting happiness.

Authentic friendships and deep connections provide us with a sense of belonging and support that enrich our lives. Whilst having lots of friends may seem appealing or make you feel ‘popular’, too many superficial relationships can leave us feeling isolated and depressed. You’ll understand this if you’ve ever been surrounded by people but still felt intensely lonely inside.

Put time and effort into cultivating genuine bonds with others that allow you to have vulnerable conversations, offer and receive support, and share experiences. Nurturing a few quality connections can contribute to a more fulfilling and joyful life.

#5 Engage in acts of kindness

It sounds obvious. Of course we should be kind. But how many of us have truly grown up with the narrative that this is important? If it’s consistently been drilled into you that achievement and material success are the top priorities, then why would you ever pause to consider kindness as an end goal in itself?

In truth, we live in a pretty selfish and egocentric world. But by engaging in acts of kindness, we start to understand our sense of interconnectedness with all things. And by extending compassion and generosity to others, we create a ripple effect that contributes to a more empathetic world.

This impact extends beyond our direct actions. For instance, we can make more conscious choices like supporting ethical fashion or cruelty-free cosmetics that promote ethical practices.

Since I’ve integrated kindness into my daily life – such as shifting to a vegan lifestyle – I’ve experienced a heightened sense of peace and contentment, knowing that my actions benefit both myself and the world around me.

#6 Have a cause bigger than yourself

Productive desk set-up

Don’t ever attach yourself to a person, a place, a company, an organisation or a project. Attach yourself to a mission, a calling, a purpose only. That’s how you keep your power and your peace.

Elon Musk

This is probably the single best piece of career advice there is.

As humans, we’re at our best when pursuing meaningful work. Rather than chasing conventional success – typically defined by salary or where you find yourself in the pecking order of an organisation – focus instead on pursuing work that aligns with your values and passions.

For example, despite taking a salary cut to go freelance and focus on Intentional View, I’d choose this path every day of the week because it’s something I deeply care about.

True fulfilment tends to be driven by a purpose and a vision bigger than yourself. This could be leading the next mission to Mars or teaching a class of primary school children.

Regardless of what your purpose looks like to you as an individual, when your efforts contribute to a larger cause beyond purely personal gain, you’ll experience genuine fulfilment and joy in your professional life and beyond.

#7 Create more, consume less

I’ve written in much greater depth on this topic here, but suffice it to say that you can’t help but shift your baseline level of happiness when you adopt this one pivotal habit change.

By shifting your state from one of passive consumption (whether material goods, social media or mindless TV shows) to active creation (such as creative pursuits and experiences), you gain entry into a flow state, also known as being ‘in the zone’.

This is a state in which you’ll get lost in an engrossing activity, experiencing heightened focus, involvement and energy. Ultimately, it allows you to experience full immersion in the task at hand, giving you a greater appreciation of how to live in the present moment.

By building a creativity habit into your day, you’ll experience more genuine agency, enrichment and fulfilment.

#8 Pursue personal growth

Woman reading a book

It might be another point that sounds fairly obvious on the surface, but the majority of us are far more committed to our comfort zone than continuously learning, evolving, and expanding our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

For example, when was the last time you sat down to read something educational, attended a workshop, or sought a new experience that pushed you outside of your comfort zone?

Pursuing lifelong growth not only enhances our capabilities and sense of accomplishment, it also builds our self-esteem and broadens our perspective.

#9 Limit materialistic pursuits

I used to be a grade-A shopaholic, so discovering the concept of minimalism was nothing short of a revelation for me.

By curbing our spending habits, it can help us to break free from the belief that happiness is dependent on acquiring the latest iPhone, designer handbag, or updating our Spring wardrobe.

Whilst we’re all likely aware in theory that stuff doesn’t make us any happier in the long term, it’s not so straightforward in practice. This is because we’re bombarded with advertising messages 24/7 which culturally condition us to prioritise material things, keeping us trapped in a vicious hedonic cycle.

To cultivate​​ genuine happiness and stop comparing ourselves to others, we need to consciously switch off from pervasive marketing messages (I’d recommend a much-needed digital detox), and focus instead on meaningful experiences and relationships that will bring us longer-term happiness and fulfilment.

#10 Savour mindful enjoyment

Girl savouring a cup of coffee

I’ll be honest, this is something I really struggle with! My mind is always ticking, I’m often trying to do two things at once, and I rarely feel like I can completely relax.

Savouring mindful enjoyment is a great way to develop an appreciation of the present moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. It helps to romanticise and enrich our everyday experiences.

Something I’ve been trying recently is to be more present at mealtimes. Try out the below to start developing this muscle:

  • Eliminate distractions, focusing solely on the meal at hand
  • Engage your senses with the colours, textures, and smells of your food
  • Take small bites, chewing slowly and deliberately
  • Pause between bites to fully appreciate your food

#11 Align with your values

Aligning with your values means first identifying the principles and beliefs that matter most to you. Next, it involves actively making choices that reflect those priorities. Regularly reflecting on your values and assessing whether your actions support them ensures that you’re living a life that’s true to you.

By clarifying what’s important to you as an individual – for instance, compassion, creativity, or freedom – you create a foundation for making decisions that align with your core values.

Living by your values gives you a sense of authenticity, purpose, and inner clarity. Nothing about life on the outside changes, but it makes a whole lot of difference on the inside.

#12 Detach from desires

Girl meditating

I’m not saying you need to take a vow of silence and become a Tibetan monk, but developing a practice of non-attachment will help you to navigate life’s ebbs and flows with greater ease. Rather than clinging to transient desires, we can learn to appreciate experiences as they come and go.

Something that’s helped me is engaging in some form of daily mindfulness practice. For instance, meditation or yoga help to develop this detachment, as you become aware of your thoughts without identifying with them.

By cultivating non-attachment, we create space for inner peace, regardless of what’s going on in our outer lives.

#13 Embrace infinite games

Last but not least, it’s important to focus on the journey rather than fixating on specific results that are outside of our control. Whilst it’s important to set goals, I think we’d all do well to recognise that life isn’t a clear-cut path.

Simon Sinek describes infinite games as those in which the objective is to keep playing and growing, rather than to achieve a final victory. This mindset shift enables us to find enjoyment in our daily experiences rather than stressing about the destination.

For instance, it’s easy for me to obsess over my website analytics – checking how many readers my blog has, how quickly it’s growing, or how I compare to others.

But when I view it as an infinite game, I appreciate that I get to write every day and share my insights with the world. I truly love what I do, regardless of the outcome. This keeps things in perspective and helps me to feel fulfilled, no matter the external circumstances.

Raise your base level of happiness infographic

Escape the Hedonic Treadmill & Live With More Intention

I’ll finish by acknowledging that I am in no way perfect, and I don’t think anyone is or ever will be. But I do recognise that I’m consistently happier on a day-to-day basis than I was a few years ago.

When we have an awareness that we should rely less on external circumstances and focus more on enriching our inner world, we’re in a much better position to make positive changes in our lives.

Remember, true happiness is an inside job. Only with a combination of self-awareness, mindfulness and intentionality can we develop healthy habits which raise our baseline happiness over time.

To get started with all things intentional living, check out my full guide here. And don’t forget to let me know your thoughts – I’d love to hear what’s working for you!

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