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According to the hedonic treadmill theory of subjective well-being each human has a hedonic set point. Positive or negative life events cause relatively short-term deviations to one's happiness before it returns to the baseline happiness level determined by the set point. The set point appears to be stable over the course of one's life. One's happiness, measured over time, looks something like this:

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Question: What, if anything, has been demonstrated by research to cause long-term, significant upward shifts of the baseline happiness? And, if so, which of those interventions are accessible to an average person (in wealthy countries)?

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    $\begingroup$ If you assume the hedonic treadmill theory is correct, then you cannot cause significant long-term shifts. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jul 17 '19 at 18:17
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Neural networks tend to maintain limited sustained activation to preserve functional properties, i.e. they can't convey information or compute things when completely active or inactive. This only happens within a small range of parameters. Let's then pseudoscientifically pretend that this awesome paper can provide the neurological basis for the hedonic treadmill and can be self-similary extrapolated to conscious functioning: We don't function optimally if we continually over or under react to our average stimulation, and evolution wants us to function optimally.

So to keep our functions optimized we want to be able to respond to the broadest range of inputs possible, we want to be dead center on "average stimulation" so that we can still compute and respond appropriately in events of lower or higher than usual stimulation: the hedonic set point here is your relation to your average stimulation. You might be a happy peppy person slightly overreacting to average stimulation or a lethargic person, underreacting. But it doesn't really matter, it's evolution using you to test whether that happiness point might be optimal to make you behave well and reproduce.

Let's continue assuming that this set point is achieved by a regulated process in neural networks by adapting their sensitivity to their inputs over time to stay at that optimal point.

Final assumption: if we don't optimize to our average inputs and too many of our neural networks respond too little or too much to their input for too long our brain will compute for a depressive or manic lifestyle. Both perfectly valid lifestyles, but seen by the evolutionary watch dogs as 'inferior' lifestyles. And usually reported to not be all that great. But hey, life itself is usually reported not to be all that great.

This paints the picture of the hedonic treadmill: as far as subjective well being is concerned, people tend to get used to their situation and be content, unless they become depressed or manic. That's ignoring all other things that can go wrong in the brain that aren't purely 'happiness disorders'.

This was what I believe keeps us at a point where we "behave evolutionary optimal". For evolutionary purposes however it does not matter if we consciously enjoy or detest the ride we're stuck in, as long as we see it through and procreate. That gives us some artistic freedom in the conscious experiencing of our ride. We can change our outlook on things: it is perfectly possible to be completely content with being eaten by a bear in the near future, but completely impossible to have any kind of control over your behaviour while it is happening. So when receiving negative or positive inputs we lose control over our consciousness, and evolution takes the wheel, but at our hedonic set point when things that we're used to are going on we can take control over our outlook of our existence.

So while I don't think you can, or want, to be in a permanent elevated happiness state (mania is no fun) you can permanently change how you perceive being forced by evolution to be stuck at a hedonic set point.

Intuitively you might want to resist this, or find it unfair or unwanted and it is this resistance that will create suffering while you're neurologically at a state where you could be perfectly content and at ease.

Unless we develop technology capable of changing how our neural networks function, I think nihilism (as viewed by for example Albert Camus, not online edgelords) and radical acceptance (as part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) might provide the most useful tools of permanently changing your outlook on your existential conditions.

To provide an answer to your question: I think in wealthy countries our best intervention to improve our subjective well-being is a continuous effort toward radical acceptance of our existential condition aided by philosophy, therapy and a healthy lifestyle.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems to explain the "hedonic treadmill" hypothesis but doesn't provide a (referenced) answer to the actual question asked. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jul 24 '19 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ If a scientific reference existed that could answer "how to make me happiest forever" I would've cited it. $\endgroup$ – Robin De Schepper Jul 25 '19 at 13:02
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Here are two major things that regulate that baseline, based on my reading of Lyubomirsky et al. (1998) and Dfarhud et al. (2014):

  1. Perception: unique to every individual in how they perceive there surroundings and how they interact with it, deals with how they view things and how they respond, which contributes majorly to how they feel day in and day out and so establishes that baseline. This parameter can be altered and which is why people refer to a certain event in their life as “this is what changed my life” basically its the change in perception and the paradigm shift that’s taken place that has gone on to change how they feel.

  2. Neurotransmitters: Play a vital role in regulating the baseline. Majorly Dopamine, Seratonin and Melatonin. Differences in the amounts of these produced by the body amongst individuals has a massive affect. A lot of factors in our day to day life play a role. Diet, Sleep & Exercise are vital and modulating these can significantly change the physiology of the neurotransmitters and thus change the baseline.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Tucker, K. L. (1998). Implications of individual differences in subjective happiness for perceiving, interpreting, and thinking about life events. Motivation and emotion, 22(2), 155-186.
Dfarhud, D., Malmir, M., & Khanahmadi, M. (2014). Happiness & health: the biological factors-systematic review Article. Iranian journal of public health, 43(11), 1468.

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    $\begingroup$ The references you cite have nothing to do with the question at hand. The Boly paper is about sensory perception and says nothing about subjective well being: you have taken this to make an unreferenced claim about self-perception of happiness. The second citation is just about how a common neurotransmitter in the brain, glutamate, is used in the hypothalamus; it has nothing to do with your point (2) about dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. In my opinion, this is far far worse than an unreferenced answer, instead it seems to be fraudulent. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jul 23 '19 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ Bryan firstly, the articles I found the insight from are to be paid and accessed . I clearly stated that if anyone found what I had written complex and found more of neuroscience terms than psychological terms. I had suggested them to first read the articles that explained the neurological and sensory perception basis first. If you want the articles that lead straight to the point if you are from neuroscience background. I have edited $\endgroup$ – Nai chan Jul 24 '19 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, I still don't see this as a properly referenced answer. It's very easy to find citations online, as well, only being able to remember a title is a poor excuse. Report what the sources actually say, and then put it in your own words, rather than making your own unsourced statements and then implying that they are supported by sources when they are not. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jul 24 '19 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ I do understand, as I am a student and its my first experience here. Although, what I had stated is from my prior knowledge from the provided titles of articles. Its not an excuse, as springers is very strict website. If you can buy and read it , would be really great! Here you go the link to the article as they dont provide Doi. link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1021396422190 $\endgroup$ – Nai chan Jul 25 '19 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Naichan Two things: (1) the part after 'article' in the URL is in fact the DOI for that specific article. (2) Providing a full APA reference without a DOI url or without a free PDF link is just fine. We do this all the time here; many readers have access either way and free PDFs can often be found on for example SciHub. Bryan's point was more that the relation between your citations and what you stated was extremely unclear. Proper citations usually follow a specific statement the citation is intended to support, as you must have noticed in the papers you read. We follow the same guideline. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Dec 21 '19 at 18:29
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This is literally the question that has given birth to most spiritual practices, (albeit among other metaphysical questions, like why we're here, which they don't necessarily answer).

But regardless I would highly suggest a spiritual practice. For example, although difficult, once someone becomes 'enlightened' as it is called in buddhism; or reaches 'salvation' as it is called in christianity. Their baseline happiness becomes about as high as possible, and they rarely are substantially affected by external circumstances. You could also take up philosophy which is essentially another facet of the same thing (in philosophy a buddha is referred to as a 'sage').

EDIT: It is difficult to scientifically justify these claims because there is no objective way to guarantee that someone is enlightened, however there still is something close in "How Enlightenment Changes your Brain". But nonetheless monks have known about these sorts of things for thousands of years. Additionally if you want scientific validation that mindfulness can make you happier some can be found here: https://www.headspace.com/science (though the specific spiritual practice isn't that important).

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have references to back up this claim? Studies that I've seen show that religious/spiritual people's subjective well being is no different from those who are non-believing/non-practicing. But I'd be happy to update my knowledge if you have evidence to the contrary. $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Dec 21 '19 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Very few spiritual people are enlightened. As a matter of fact the vast majority of even commonplace spiritual teachers are not enlightened (e.g. priests). This is a notoriously difficult subject for science to investigate because there is no objective way to guarantee that anyone is enlightened. But there are none the less scientific validations that you can find in the book "How Enlightenment Changes your Brain". $\endgroup$ – profPlum Dec 21 '19 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ There are also many scientific articles validating that mindfulness practices do indeed make you happier, there are some you can find here: headspace.com/science $\endgroup$ – profPlum Dec 21 '19 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is now conflating spiritual practice with philosophy, enlightenment, and meditation - 4 very different subjects. I suggest that you focus your answer on only the subject(s) that you have references for, and demonstrate how those references support your claims, as I do not believe that they do. For example, the (very tiny amount of) research presented by headspace.com indicates only short-term effects of meditation, no changes in baseline happiness. $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Dec 21 '19 at 18:20

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