Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

How to Raise Your Happiness Baseline

How to Raise Your Happiness BaselineWe tend to think of happiness as a commodity.

We put a value on it. We try to maximize our odds of obtaining it. We attend seminars and read books (and blogposts) on how to get more of it.

But maybe that approach – thinking of happiness as something that can be gained, lost or bartered for – is misguided.

What if we are programmed at birth for a certain level of happiness? What if a large percentage of our capacity for happiness – say, half – is predetermined when we arrive on this mortal coil, and the other 50 percent depends on the choices we make after getting here?

Seen this way, happiness is sort of like athletic ability. World Cup-caliber soccer skills are not something you can go out and buy at Wal-Mart. Genetics gives us a toolbox of physical attributes, and it is up to us to take the tools out and use them. Or not use them.

Game, Happy Set-Point, Match?

Behavioral scientists call this the set-point theory of happiness.

“[This theory] suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives,” writes psychiatrist and career coach Alex Lickerman. “Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time. Habituation, a growing body of evidence now tells us, occurs even to things like career advancement, money and marriage.”

Notice that money, career and marriage are among those things that cause only a temporary uptick in happiness. After the novelty of the new toy wears off, the needle drops back to the same old set-point.

But researchers have found one thing that appears to actually elevate our happiness baseline: helping others.

 “[T]he trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals,” Lickerman writes. “That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run. What’s more, according to another study, altruism doesn’t just correlate with an increase in happiness; it actually causes it—at least in the short term. When psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky had students perform five acts of kindness of their choosing per week over the course of six weeks, they reported a significant increase in their levels of happiness relative to a control group of students who didn’t.”

Happily Boosting Your Bottom Line

As lawyers we are uniquely positioned to help other people. That’s why they come to us in the first place. And when we focus on helping others – as opposed to winning cases or accumulating piles of money – our self-esteem is enhanced and our happiness soars.

Here are some specific things you can do to do be happier right now:

  • Tell your clients thank you. Studies show that couples who verbally express gratitude to each other on a daily basis report happier relationships than those who don’t say the magic words. Likewise, employers who thank their employees – and do it regularly – feel better about themselves and their work lives.
  • At the end of each day, write down five things you are thankful for. “Happy people focus on what they have, not on what they don’t have,” writes Jeff Haden on “It’s motivating to want more in your career, relationships and bank account. But thinking about what you already have, and expressing gratitude for it, will make you a lot happier. It will remind you that even if you still have huge dreams you have already accomplished a lot and should feel genuinely proud.”
  • Make good friends. The more positive relationships you build – at work and outside of the office – the happier you will be.
  • Do what you’re good at. Ration your talents. Don’t squander them. Tackle tasks that excite you – or at least ones that don’t stifle your soul. Delegate and outsource tasks that don’t turn you on.
  • Don’t make “stuff” your goal. People who identify a specific goal and actively pursue it (as opposed to merely daydreaming about it) are significantly happier than those who plod dutifully through the day. But if your goal is little more than acquiring more stuff – money, flat-screen televisions, shiny cars – beware. Like candy, these things bring a sugar high. But when the rush wears off, you will find yourself right back where you started.

The big takeaway: happiness is a choice, not a commodity. Fifty percent might be out of our control. But 50 percent is. So don’t worry, be happy.


Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact



About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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