What Does Happiness Really Taste?

My dear sister’s husband loves her but thinks a lot about life on this planet. He tells me every time I pass through his city that he never feels as good as he felt. I feel sad for him but I don’t know why. If I had a nickel for every time he has mentioned to me that he didn’t feel “as good as he did” the time before he met me, I would have enough money to buy all the fish I could eat in a lifetime.

We all have an innate sense of what we need to feel good — what we are supposed to have. But the thing about that instinct is that it is often a little inaccurate. The more we learn about what makes us happy, the more we can tweak our own experiences to be just the kind of things we need to be happy. This is called happiness research. It’s a small subset of the science on happiness, but it is very promising.

One example is that if you’re very happy with yourself, you shouldn’t be satisfied with your life. If you’re really happy with your life, you need to change things to make yourself happy again. If you are really unhappy with your life, it’s not so good to live it that way. We know that people are happier and healthier when they live in environments as satisfying as possible. This is called the golden cage experiment . 

A second example in the research on happiness is that if you find yourself not happy with some people in your life, but are content with some other people, you may be happy. Some of that happiness has to do with the people you love, the friendships you have, the work you do. But many other kinds of happiness — self-confidence, emotional control — is more about choices you make about how to respond to life. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. I want to explain more about this in a moment, but in the meantime, here are just a few examples of the kinds of behaviors you can practice in your personal life to experience more happiness, based on the research we have on happiness.

1) Try new things. If you do something every day, you will eventually run out of new ideas to work on. This is a real issue. One study found that 60 percent of people have no new ideas at all for six months after the first day they started working from home. You might imagine that that 70 percent of them would be stuck. But that might not be the case. It turns out that if you make a new effort or experiment once every couple of weeks or months, you will have a lot of new possibilities for doing what you’re doing. When I tried living in the city and traveling for work, I found that it was the first time in months that I didn’t want to go back to New York. Every time I thought I wanted to go home, I came back. This was because I was constantly changing what I was doing. When I gave myself permission to try something new, I discovered there were so many new possibilities that I actually felt happier. The first time I tried living from home and getting paid to eat out, I didn’t have any ideas for how to do it. When a new idea arrived — my roommate told me he was the owner of a restaurant — I jumped on it.

2) Find some ways to be satisfied. I am a bit of a masochist, so I’m not good at letting my feelings surface to me. So, as someone who often hides my inner pain, and has an almost morbid fear of expressing it, I had lots of difficulty in finding this option: If I got really, really good at being happy for other people, I would let my own frustrations go too. But in my own research, I found that when I could accept that I was unhappy with me, I became more accepting of people around me and more willing to see them as valuable members of the human race.  That’s because I had a new understanding of love. When I could imagine being happy for people who were really happy for me, I knew how to be happy for them as well.