Now, don’t get excited—but do get happy. Martha Beck explains the all-important difference between feeling thrilled, exhilarated, and crazed.
It was the bottom bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks were all tied up. As Arizonans, my family and I were thrilled to see our state getting attention for something other than sun damage, so when Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run, we went bananas—screaming, punching the air, jumping like jackrabbits on crack. Now, ordinarily my beagle Cookie (may he rest in peace) loved human celebrations. He’d howl along and do a little tap dance, castanet toenails clicking on the floor. But after Gonzo’s historic hit, as the rest of us shrieked in victory, Cookie ran trembling to hide under the bed.
While trying to extract him, I suddenly realized that our revelry had indeed felt a bit crazed. Upon further reflection, I saw that it echoed a similar craziness in the TV commercials that had aired during the game. On television, people weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants—they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone. Car salesmen announced bargains with such enthusiasm, I feared for their undershorts. In fact, everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time.
Well, it isn’t, and we shouldn’t.
Cookie’s animal honesty woke me up to the strangeness of something I’d begun to take for granted: the fact that our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks—madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow!
Don’t get me wrong. Excitement is a great and necessary thing; without it life wouldn’t be complete. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding. And cultivating it is one of the most important steps we can take toward creating fulfilling lives.
Peak Experiences: Faux Happiness
Intense excitement is what Asian philosophy might call the “near enemy” of true joy—something that looks like the genuine article but is in reality its evil twin. When a gift recipient or jackpot winner starts shaking, screaming, or hyperventilating, we call it happiness, but actually it’s evidence that their neurological fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered. (This helps explain why it’s not just a play on words to say that mania can create maniacs, and why in some cases sports fans seem to riot more violently after their teams win than after they lose: Our fight-or-flight system predisposes us to violence.) Switching on this mechanism switches off the physiological processes that allow us to relax, connect, and absorb joyful experience.
What’s more, high excitement is often followed by a mood crash. Afterward we may go through a phase of feeling lifeless and depressed. Users of the recreational drug Ecstasy are familiar with the hormone drop that follows a weekend rave. They call it Suicide Tuesday, and if you’re an obsessive euphoria seeker, you’ve felt it, too, with or without drugs.
For people who think mania is happiness, the only remedy for Suicide Tuesday is another intensely exciting experience. This may explain why trips to Disney World are exalted like pilgrimages to Mecca, and why multiday extravaganza destination weddings are becoming ever more the norm. The attitude can be traced all the way back to the European adventurers who seeded American society; they were always seeking some variety of El Dorado, some prize to top all other prizes. As a Pueblo Indian chief once told the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”
Next: What does real happiness look like?
The Plains of Peace: Real Happiness
True joy lacks the wild ups and downs of an excitement-based life. It’s a peaceful landscape, filled with peaceful thoughts and peaceful emotions. Indeed, it’s so peaceful that, to our adrenaline-soaked culture, it looks rather plain. In fact, I like to think of it as the plains of peace.
You can probably look back on times that didn’t seem very memorable when they were happening but that stand out in retrospect for their sweetness: floating in the ocean on a summer day; seeing the sun set as you drove home from work; picking berries in the country with friends. Relive those moments—the sound of the surf, the breeze on your face, the taste of salt on your lips, the gentle rocking of the water—and you’ll see that they’re rich, layered, and powerfully sustaining to the soul. Beagles, who wag their tails over every small joy, seem to recognize these moments continuously. Humans, not so much.
If you worry that your life is lacking in events so exciting they’ll make your head spin like an industrial food processor, I have good news: You can relax. The best way to increase genuine joy is to stop searching for manic highs and instead explore the plains of peace. Happily, you’re in the perfect place to begin: this very moment.
How to Be Here Now
People started telling me to “be here now” when I was about 20. “Great!” I responded. “How?” Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn’t force my brain to just “be still.” Here it is: Make something.
You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.
To get a dopamine “hit,” make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you’re not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won’t want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating.
As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you’re physically and mentally active. You won’t notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind’s frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what’s occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it’s the opposite of dull. It’s infinitely varied and exquisite.
The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you’re left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.
Pay attention to this process, and you’ll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You’ll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you’re not actively creating. When this happens, you’ll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.
Next: What Martha has ultimately learned about happiness
And when something genuinely thrilling happens, you’ll be ready. That wild rumpus celebrating the Diamondbacks’ victory in the World Series turned me into a baseball fan. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed watching large men in pajamas strive for victory. I enjoy going briefly berserk when my team wins. I enjoy seeing the women in commercials ecstatically dust their furniture. But I don’t take any of it seriously. What I do take seriously is the lesson I learned from Cookie and his successor, Bjorn: that happiness is available to me in every moment. It’s there in the words I’m writing now, in my engagement with those around me, in the happy sigh Bjorn breathes as we sit together exploring the plains of peace. Wow.