When You Don't Know What Makes You Happy

I recently had a client contact me wanting to attain “sustainable happiness,” a notion that’s been perpetuated by self-help books, crystal-pedaling hippies, and Prozac commercials.  Humans were not intended to be happy all the time.  Or to be sad all the time.  Or to watch more than one season of a show on Netflix at a time.  We are creatures who need contrast. We can’t appreciate the light without the dark, the Oreo without the cream filling.  But since debating the nature of happiness doesn’t make for a good first impression, I asked her, “What brings you joy?”  Silence.  She had no idea.

I could empathize.  I was once in her place, living in sweatpants, eating junk food, and dating crappy men. The point is, I had no idea what made me happy either.  I was so focused on being happy all the time that I barely noticed what made me happy when I was. And that’s exactly why I was unhappy.

The truth is that it’s freakin’ hard to say what makes us happy, but in the moment, when we feel true bliss, we’re able to pinpoint with certainty the exact thing that changed our state. It could be ice cream on a hot day, puppy cuddles after a bad date, or finally having sex for the first time in a year and a half.

But if you’re a vegan, a cat-lover, or straight-up celibate, don’t despair! There’s an easy, painfully obvious solution to your pleasure puzzle.

Ready for it?

Next time something good happens, stop and actually appreciate it. This goes well beyond “stop and smell the roses.”

It’s called savoring and here’s how it works:

As I’m writing this, I had to turn my wifi off. Why? Because I’ve been conditioned to be a multitasking machine and among my favorite distracting tasks (including, but not limited to making spotify playlists, picking at my split-ends, and texting friends), is the checking of Facebook. I don’t enjoy it, I’m like a mosquito drawn to a bug zapper. Even writing outside, an activity that gives me peace and clarity is greatly diminished. Why? Because the less I notice any one thing, the less I am able to enjoy anything.

So what happens when I go off the grid and savor a moment? I notice the nuances: the sights, sounds, and smells that make writing outside feel amazing.

Every time we savor, we’re making a deposit into our happiness account. It all adds up:   

Those who said they regularly took notice of something beautiful were 12% more likely to say they were satisfied with their lives.
— David Niven

The truth is that we see what we look for. Practice savoring and you’ll be conditioned to notice the things that make you happy and not just the crap that brings you down. But it takes active work to rewire decades of learned behavior.

So how exactly does one savor?

Slow the F*ck down. That means turn off the TV while you eat. Don’t watch football online when you’re on a Skype date with your long distance girlfriend (Yes, George. I’m still pissed about that!) And, since I’m now thinking about George, savoring also improves relationships.

When you’re asked “How was your day?” by a loved one, most of us are tempted to launch into a tirade of “Chad’s” obnoxious behavior, insane traffic, or some other negative experience. But, if you share positive experiences, you actually “double the pleasure, double the fun” (yes, that was a reference to doublemint gum, I’m digging deep with my cultural references today!) Celebrating the accomplishments of loved ones increases your happiness and strengthens your relationship.

Savoring can also be used to lift yourself out of a bad mood. I remember showing up for a couples therapy session wondering, “how the f*ck is our therapist going to fix this mess? I love him, but I can’t stand him!” Sensing my anger and knowing that I’m not productive when pissy, she’d ask us to start each session with “appreciations.” We took turns sharing one thing we appreciated about our partner doing that week. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was hard. But no matter what, it forced us to let our guard down, choose happiness, and ultimately change our state. And, in our case, it leveled the playing field for us to go into battle…oops, I mean work things out.

The Takeaway: 

Ultimately, happiness is a choice you make based on where you direct your feelings. If you’re so concerned with being happy all the time, you’ll ignore the moments when you actually are. Don’t know what makes you happy? That’s fine. Just focus on the feeling when it comes up. Take in the entire sensory experience. Over time, you’ll strengthen your ability to notice the good and ignore the crap, improving both your mood and your relationships. And to me, that’s much better than crystals, Prozac, or Netflix.

What makes you happy?
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