The secret of happiness is a concern of growing importance in the modern era, as increased financial security has given many the time to focus on self-growth. Since we are no longer cavemen concerned with where to find our next meal, we worry instead about how to live our lives in a happier state. Happiness books have become a huge industry and personal-development training and seminars are a bigger business than ever.
The pursuit of happiness is not uniquely American either, in a study of more than 10,000 participants from 48 countries, it was discovered that people from every corner of the globe rated happiness as being more important than other highly desirable personal outcomes, such as having meaning in life, finding the perfect career, and getting into heaven.
Most people accept that true happiness is more than a jumble of intensely positive feelings, it’s probably better described as a sense of “peace” or “contentedness.” Regardless of how it’s defined, happiness is partly emotional, and therefore tethered to the truth that each individual’s feelings have a natural set point, like a thermostat, where genetic makeup and personality play a role. Yes, positive events give you a boost, but before long you swing back toward your natural set point.
True happiness lasts longer than a burst of dopamine, so it’s important to think of it as something more than just emotion. Your sense of happiness also includes cognitive reflections, such as when you give a mental thumbs-up or thumbs-down to your best friend’s sense of humor, the shape of your nose, or the quality of your marriage. Only a bit of this has to do with how you feel, the rest is mental arithmetic. It’s how you compute your expectations, your ideals, your acceptance of what you can’t change, and countless other factors. That is, happiness is a state of mind, and can be intentional and strategic.
Regardless of your emotional set point, your everyday habits and choices can push the needle on your well-being. Recent studies documenting the unique habits of those who are happiest in life even provides something of an instruction manual for emulating them. It turns out that activities that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of people’s lives. Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counterintuitive habits that seem, well, downright unhappy.
Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people are, simply put, curious. In a 2007 study, scientists found that when participants monitored their own daily activities, as well as how they felt, over the course of 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life. They engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.
Curiosity is fundamentally an anxious state. Curiosity, it seems, is largely about exploration, often at the price of momentary happiness. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, a closer look at some studies suggest that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard to higher psychological peaks.
There are plenty of instances in life where the best way to increase your satisfaction is to simply do what you know feels good, whether it’s playing your favorite song or making plans to see your best friend. But from time to time, it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain, or even upsetting. If that means finally taking the leap and doing karaoke for the first time or wearing that little black dress you’ve been waiting to wear, you just go for it. The happiest people opt for both so that they can benefit, at various times, from each.