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How resetting your psychological baseline can make your life better.

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

Many of us might be feeling bad about life at the moment. One approach that may improve your mood is shifting your psychological “baseline” of what you view as normal to reflect the reality you’re currently living in. This blog examines how to accept the state of things as they currently are, instead of getting stuck wishing the world looked how you want it to be. This valuable technique, which we describe below, can be applied to many different kinds of setbacks and difficult situations you encounter.

psychological baseline

Understanding your psychological baseline

How bad we feel depends on our psychological “baseline” for what we consider normal. For example, if you view the baseline for your finances as having $5000 in the bank, having $3000 is going to make you feel bad. But if you view your baseline as having $1000, then $3000 is going to make you feel good!

Accepting reality as it actually is (letting go of what we call “mental rebelling”) can reset your baseline, which can tremendously improve your outlook in some circumstances. If your baseline reflects the way the world actually is, rather than the way it recently was (before something was lost) or the way you want it to be, reality hurts less. Of course, we can (and should) strive to make reality better than it is. But you can still do this while accepting the facts about the current state of the world. Acceptance doesn't stop you from taking valuable actions, but it does make it easier to deal with reality.

What does acceptance really mean?

Acceptance is a mental manoeuvre that is hard to define (we generally lack the vocabulary in English for these kind of mental actions), but it might involve steps like:

  • Noting the facts that actually make up reality (not how you would like reality to be, or what reality recently looked like).

  • Noting that you CAN handle the fact that the state of the world is what it is (unless you literally can’t, which is another matter, but that’s rarely true).

  • Noting that the state of the world does not mean that everything important is lost; there are likely to still be many things of value that exist.

  • Avoiding “mental rebelling.” Mental rebelling might involve thoughts like: “this can’t be happening”, “this is awful”, “I can’t take this”, “this sucks”, or “why me?” When you notice this kind of thought, acknowledge it (“I just had the thought “this can't be happening””), but don’t dwell on it. Let it drift out of your mind once you've acknowledged it.

  • Reflecting on the real state of the world and trying to feel an emotion of “acceptance” towards it. Feeling this emotion doesn’t mean you like the current state of the world, but it might help you accept the facts of reality instead of trying to resist them. You can accept a situation that you really dislike, and sometimes it is essential to do so. And of course, even after accepting it, you probably will want to work to make that situation better (acceptance doesn't stop you from trying to improve things, it just makes reality easier to handle).

  • Paying the psychological cost of acknowledging that the reality you want doesn’t exist NOW, instead of putting off that cost. This means not trying to delay the sense of loss that you will feel, since this loss has already occurred (the state of the world isn’t the way you want it to be, and it's better to acknowledge that now rather than later). It is tempting to avoid acknowledging this because the loss will hurt, but you actually hurt yourself more by delaying the experience.

An example of acceptance

To give another monetary example, suppose $100 accidentally fell out of your wallet while you were walking, and now it is gone. You’re beating yourself up for having lost it, and are continuing to search the streets you walked down for the money even though it’s become abundantly clear you won’t find it, and you’re feeling really bad about it.

Acceptance in this situation might look like:

  • Fully acknowledging that the $100 is gone

  • Noting any negative self-talk (“I’m such an idiot”) but letting those thoughts drift away without getting stuck in them

  • Experiencing the full psychological loss of the money right NOW (not trying to delay the feeling of loss or deny it)

  • Acknowledging that you can survive without the $100

  • Attempting to move your baseline (the state you were in when you had $100) to be one that doesn’t involve having $100, so that not having this money feels normal instead of bad. You want to get yourself to the mental state where suddenly stumbling on the $100 would feel like gaining $100, not feel like simply restoring you back to the prior baseline!

Using gratitude to shift your baseline

Shifting your psychological baseline can also be achieved with gratitude. By reminding yourself that not everyone has the good things you have, that you may never have had what you have now, or that you won’t have it forever, you can move your baseline below the way you currently perceive it. Then what’s real starts to look like a gift, rather than something merely neutral. Your food feels like more of a gift if you remember not everyone has enough food to eat. Your loved ones are more precious when you remember that not everyone is around people they love.

Faulty baselines can bias your decision-making

Our psychological baselines also play an important role in decision-making (“Prospect Theory” is one example of this). If you just made a lot of money at a casino, your mental baseline may not yet have caught up to having that extra money. Hence, you view that money as above and beyond what’s normal, so you are more willing to gamble it than you would be if you came back to the casino tomorrow (after your baseline has adjusted). A way to reduce this bias is to adjust our baseline to match reality faster (though, in this case, it could have the negative side effect of making you not feel as excited about your winnings).

There is a related bias that can occur in the opposite situation: if you’ve just lost a lot of money at a casino but not adjusted your baseline to incorporate this new state of affairs, you may take unusually risky gambles to try to win the money back (perhaps in the hopes of not having to incorporate this loss into your view of reality). This is obviously a bad idea in a gambling context, and you’d be better off adjusting your baseline to match reality instead.

When we fall prey to the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”, we’re also failing to adjust our baselines to reality. This fallacy describes what happens when we continue with a project even when we know the future prospects of the project are bad; we don’t want to have “wasted” (or “sunk”) all the effort and resources we’ve put into it already. But if we accept reality, and adjust our baseline to incorporate this loss (which has indeed already occurred), the temptation to engage in the sunk cost fallacy may be reduced (or disappear completely).

How can you use this information to become happier?

If you’re feeling bad about something, try shifting your baseline to reflect your reality by practicing the different forms of acceptance outlined above, and use gratitude to adjust your baseline BELOW reality (so that the state of the world looks better than you might have otherwise thought).

Consider the state of your psychological baseline when making decisions that will affect your future. Does your baseline reflect the way that reality is in the current moment? Are there any recent changes you might have missed?

Edited by Holly Muir


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