Why we should be aiming for quiet contentment rather than happiness highs

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Bursts of hyper happiness are great, but they’re not a sustainable path to happiness. Aiming for quiet contentment might be a better route, says Dr Elissa Epel.

Happy face

When we say ‘happiness’, you might think of intense moments of unbridled joy: getting a new job, eating something really delicious or hearing some brilliant life-changing news (lottery win?). Those pockets of delight absolutely have their place in our lives, but, says Dr Elissa Epel, they can’t be our main aim.

Instead, we should be aiming for more sustainable, quiet contentment.

“Happiness highs are often from consuming food or a substance, buying something or achieving something,” Dr Epel, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Stylist. “We can’t maintain these highly pleasurable states for a long time. They are bursts of happiness highs that we can savour but not sustain over time.”

The problem with happiness highs is not just that they’re tricky to get hold of, but that they’re often followed by lows. As well as this, they can’t last forever. Intense pleasure is fleeting, and even when it does last longer than expected, we quickly get used to the sensation and stop appreciating it. This is hedonic adaptation, and explains why your tenth bite of ice cream is nowhere near as brilliant as the first or why the thrill of a new job quickly trails off.

“We quickly experience a drop back down to our typical levels of happiness even after a major happy event,” Epel notes in her book.

What’s more, the very rollercoaster of these happiness highs can be bad for our mental wellbeing. Dr Epel writes: “Even if you have a lot of ‘high highs’, it turns out that the more ups and downs you experience in positive emotion throughout the day, the more you suffer, with worse mental health and lower vagal tone. Routinely swinging up and down in positive mood is even linked to earlier mortality.”

Chasing happiness is not the key to happiness: quiet contentment is a much better route to take

So rather than chasing these peaks of happiness (and then enduring the inevitable troughs that come with them), we should pursue a lower-level, more sustainable wave of contentment. But what does this actually look like?

“Sustainable happiness is from love, purpose,” claims Epel. “It’s rooted in your relationships with and connections to other people, and the most important thing about it is that it is lasting.” 

The good news is that while happiness highs tend to come from external factors (delicious food, money, sex), quiet contentment is something you can usually access from within… and for free. 

Epel believes that there are three ingredients to contentment: the ability to notice and savour moments of joy, having positive social connections and feeling a sense of purpose. Appreciating these smaller, less flashy means of happiness – our relationships with loved ones, feeling like our jobs have meaning, the small pleasure of the wind on your face – will do us a world of good. 

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