Illustration: David Drummond
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?
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