This blog has been published on the Psychology Today Blog page
After over a year of dealing with COVID, many people are finding that the term “languishing” captures how they are feeling. Languishing means you’re not doing really badly, but you’re slightly down, slightly less active, and more withdrawn than your usual self. It’s not a really awful feeling, just not really great. Your energy is down, and it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about much. I think of it as a state of just feeling more down than usual.
So what’s going on? I want to explain what an emotional set point is and how understanding this concept can help you get back to your normal, happier self.
Let’s Start With Some Theory
What is an emotional set point? We all have emotional set points. The technical term is hedonic adaptation. What hedonic adaptation means is that we each have a typical level of happiness we generally feel. Of course, when really good things happen, we get an emotional lift, and when really bad things happen, we feel down; however, eventually we adapt and return to our usual level of happiness. For example, if you get a new car, you will really enjoy it for a while and get a boost to your happiness, but eventually, you get used to your car and it does not add much to your sense of well-being.
Can set points change? We each normally have a set point that we return to after things go particularly well or badly for us. However, sustained changes in our circumstances can increase or lower our set point. This is especially true if the changes have wide-ranging and long-lasting positive or negative effects. For example, imagine that during COVID you lose your job; you have less money; you worry more about finances; you are limited in your ability to go out with your friends and do fun things; you fight more with your partner, who is more critical of you; and your kids are home all day because school is closed. Imagine that this lasts for a year. There is a good chance that your overall emotional set point will go down a few notches. To a large extent, this is what has happened to all of us during the pandemic. Even if we did not lose our job, we have all had a year of constant negative events. We’ve seen fewer friends and family members, gone out less, possibly exercised less, traveled less, and generally done fewer activities that we enjoy. Some of us have had major losses of people we love, serious COVID-related illnesses, and major economic loss. It makes sense that our emotional set point is lower than it was. The lowering of our set point is what it means to languish.
What determines our emotional set point? Psychological research suggests that about 50% of our emotional set point is determined by genes. You are basically born with a certain propensity to happiness. But that is not the whole story. About 10% of our set point is due to circumstances. People who have had a large amount of really sad, difficult things happen to them tend to be less happy, and people who have had a lot of wonderful things happen to them tend to be happier. You usually can’t change what lands on your plate. But the hopeful piece is that the remaining 40% of our set point is determined by what we do and how we cope with life.
Strategies to Raise Your Emotional Set Point
Now that you know about your emotional set point, what can you do about it?
1. Be kind to yourself. Life happens, and the pandemic is pretty awful for most of us. Recognize that it’s normal for your set point to go down a few notches. It’s not your fault; you did nothing wrong.
2. Try to embrace optimism. As I mentioned abo, despite good and bad things happening, we tend to rebound to our usual set point. So there is a good chance that despite your languishing, once you get back to a more normal post -COVID life, your mood will bounce back. You can be optimistic and hopeful that this will happen.
3. Reset your set point. Remember that 40%? There is actually quite a lot you can do to push your emotional set point back up. Here are some useful strategies:
· Do something you enjoy and that you think will boost your mood. Make a plan and to do it regularly over at least a few weeks. It will take a while for you to start to feel better, so keep at it.
· Be grateful for what is going well in your life.
· Try to minimize what is going badly. It can be helpful to figure out what parts of a problem you can control and what parts you can’t control. It can also be helpful to talk to a someone you trust – sometimes just sharing makes the load less and friends or family really can think of novel approaches to an issue.
· Try to repair any relationship that has hit some difficulties, or reach out to someone you have not seen in awhile.
· Do one kind thing for someone others each week. For example, call a friend who is struggling, be extra nice to someone you live with, or do an unexpected errand. (Research has found that doing a different kind act every week is more effective than doing the same kind act).
The keys to increasing your emotional set point are to plan enjoyable activities, have gratitude for the positive things in your life, be kind to yourself and others, and look forward to better times. I have had some pretty awful things happen to me—and I have also had some pretty great, unexpected things happen. Have faith that your life can improve.