The First Secret to Extreme Happiness

This week I’m exploring the secrets to extreme happiness based off a list of the happiest, most gratifying, most joyous, most awestruck experiences of my life. You can read more about the premise here.

The first category I’m going to delve into is when these experiences of extreme happiness happened. There are a few that happen on an ongoing basis (i.e., my cat snuggling on me at night or eating dinner with as a family when I was growing up); for those, I’ve categorized them in the time period when I first experienced extreme happiness from them. You can see the results in the graph below, followed by analysis and what this means for you. Note that there are currently 87 items on my list, but I’m sure it will continue to grow.

2009-07-13_2337The first and obvious response to this data is that time plays a big part in what I actually remember. It’s easier to remember something that happened yesterday than something that happened when I was in fourth grade.

But the data indicates something beyond that, because elementary, middle, and high school are all very close. I think a big part of this for me is that all of those years were times of self-actualization for me. I was an observer as a kid, always trying to figure out why people acted the way they did and how I was supposed to act to get positive reactions out of people (and to not be made fun of, something I’m guessing many kids do). By the time I got to college, although I was still observing–after all, people’s behaviors and lifestyles change a lot in college, so there was a lot to learn–I was also very comfortable in my own skin. I knew who I was and where I fit in, so I was able to more easily seek opportunities and experiences that were gratifying. A few examples from my list of things that were only possible because I was comfortable in my own skin:

  • having a toga party (nothing but sheets) at the beach with a bunch of former high school friends
  • singing karaoke with friends in Japan
  • dancing with my date at a law school formal
  • fixing a clogged drain in front of a bunch of people at a friend’s house

My other observation is that the two happiest periods of my life according to this data happened when I was on my own. When I no longer lived with my parents. This is not to say that my parents held me back from being happy. Nothing of the sort–I was a perfectly happy kid with normal levels of occasional angst. Rather, happiness came with independence. And with independence comes the ability to use my time as I want. For example, on my list is the experience I had while reading a book called The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read this book about five years ago in one sitting. I laughed, I cried, I literally could not put it down. Would I have had the same opportunity to spend 10 straight hours reading a book at home in high school? No way. There were chores and homework and soccer practices to contend with. Is spending 10 straight hours a good choice? Maybe not. But it sure made me happy. A few other examples of happiness that came with time and independence:

  • eating too much ramen at 1:00 in the morning in Japan
  • flirting with a girl until the sun came up
  • eating 10 scoops of Haagen Dazs after a long bike trip in Japan
  • playing Settlers/Agricola for hours and hours

So what does all this mean for you? I think it’s pretty simple: Be comfortable in your own skin (and find friends/environments that let you do so), be independent, and let yourself indulge every now and then. Indulge in a book or a pumpkin pie or a lover. Spending 10 straight hours reading a book every weekend is unhealthy and will probably greatly reduce your happiness. But every now and then when you’re really excited about the book and don’t want to put it down? Don’t. And be extremely happy as a result.

Tomorrow: Where