I was driving down the road the other day when I noticed intensely positive emotions bubbling up to the surface.
I could feel butterflies building in my stomach. I decided to lean into these sensations and enjoy them because I knew they wouldn’t last.
When I was younger, this idea used to destress me. I wanted to enjoy these euphoric feelings all the time, but I knew from experience that wouldn’t happen. I’d caution myself not to get too happy. The higher my happiness, the greater the impending fall.
This may be something you can relate to. Humans have a wide range of emotions that fluctuate regularly. Just when you think you couldn’t be happier, something happens to bring you back down to Earth, sometimes with an almighty thud.
If you’re like me, you might find it helpful to understand that humans aren’t designed to be ecstatically happy for more than short periods of time. Your emotions serve more of a purpose than you might realize. They’re designed to help you survive.
You might think floating on air 24/7 would be great, but it wouldn’t be a good survival strategy. Think back to a time when you felt over the moon. Maybe you’d just got engaged, won an award or achieved a goal you’d been working towards for years.
Was it easy to settle down and get your work done? I find it hard to stay on task when I’m on an emotional high. I’m much more interested in celebrating my success or revelling in my emotions.
Negative emotions are designed to raise your alarm system and get you ready for a fight/flight/freeze response. The minute your brain thinks you’re in a win-lose situation, it makes a split-second decision.
It chooses the strategy it believes will give you the greatest chance of surviving the perceived threat.
As positive psychologist Martin Seligman puts it, negative emotions trigger a “Here be dragons” response. This is important if you think you’re under some sort of attack.
Positive emotions are part of a “Here be growth” response. When you feel moderately happy, you’re more creative, tolerant and open to new ideas and experiences. This is the perfect frame of mind for problem-solving, calculated risk-taking, and creating lasting relationships. Notice that these skills come with moderate happiness, not intensely joyful emotions.
Because it serves you to spend most of your time in the moderate level of feeling good, the human brain has developed something called “hedonic adaptation.”
Whenever you dip or soar out of your optimum range of happiness, it flares into action to pull you back into what’s known as your “setpoint.” This is the best place to be for connection and growth.
Although the word “setpoint” might make you think it’s one specific intensity of happiness, it actually refers to a range of emotions.
When you’re in your span of setpoint emotions, you’ll find it easier to be creative, social, and successful. A burst of intense happiness or a dip into negative emotions interrupts this, so hedonic adaptation pulls you back into your optimum happiness level so you can grow and move forward.
You might not like the sound of being pulled out of your happy place, but remember it isn’t a one-way street. Not only does hedonic adaptation drag you back from intensely positive emotions it also helps prevent you from falling into a never-ending bout of depression, fear, or unhappiness.
Unless you’re suffering from a mood disorder or other type of mental condition, at some point, hedonic adaptation will swoop in like a superhero and rescue you from your negative emotions. This is one reason you may feel much better after a good night’s sleep.
It doesn’t matter how far you stray from your predetermined normal range or setpoint, your brain will work tirelessly to bring you back to what it believes is the best place for your survival.
Research suggests that no matter what circumstances you encounter in your life, you’ll adjust to them, and your emotions will gradually return to whatever normal is for you. This includes a major lottery win or an unwanted health condition.
Hedonic adaptation prevents you from standing still. It keeps you from getting stuck in a fight/flight/freeze response, or intensely happy glow. It encourages you to grow and move forward with your life.
Being aware that this cycle exists can be very comforting. When you notice it springing into action, remind yourself that it’s a survival mechanism that’s helping you live your best life.
As positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes it, heightened levels of happiness and sadness are like puddles that gradually evaporate, leaving you back where you were before it rained.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.