Is Calm the New Happy?

A long time ago, happy meant excitement, right? Don't worry. You're not missing out—you've just evolved. (Thank goodness.)

woman in bathtub
Adam Voorhes for Reader’s Digest
WHEN I WAS 21 and approaching my final semester of college, my research adviser offered me the chance to spend the term in India, working at the University of Mumbai. I squealed and jumped up and down, excited beyond words. It would be so thrilling to live abroad, I thought. The adventure of a lifetime!

I shared the wonderful news with my parents. Sadly, they did not think it was so wonderful. They thought it was crazy.

“Where will you stay while you’re there?” my mother asked.

“I … um … I don’t actually know,” I replied, a little embarrassed not to have a good answer.

“And what will it cost? What will you live on?”

I didn’t know that either. All I knew was that going to India for a few months sounded really cool. Back then, I was all about embracing risk, seeking out new experiences, and living for the thrill. I wasn’t going to let little things like what I’d eat or where I’d sleep get in the way. When I boarded the plane, I felt as if I were on top of the world.

Fast-forward 20 years: I am packing for a four-day trip to Toronto with my husband and two children. I’ve made detailed lists so I don’t forget anything important, like aspirin, tearless shampoo, and Band-Aids. “You know, they have pharmacies in Canada too,” my husband says teasingly. I smile but ignore him. Prepping to ensure a safe, relaxing getaway makes me happy—not jumping-up-and-down happy but a different kind. I pack eight changes of clothes per person, a hair dryer in case the hotel’s doesn’t work, and an extra charger for my cell phone.

I’m thinking about how good it will feel when we get to the hotel, where—confident that I’ve taken care of every possible need for the family I love so dearly—I can soak peacefully in a hot tub and relax. Then I’ll be on top of the world.

A Change of Heart
My 21-year-old adventurous self wouldn’t believe it if you told her that one day she’d be a woman who looked forward to an evening bath. This was a girl who, without exaggeration, refused to stay home on a Saturday night even when she had the flu, unless she was too delirious to wiggle into her party jeans.

Something happened to me on the way from 21 to 40: My idea of happiness morphed from the high-energy, ecstatic experience of a wild night with friends to the more peaceful, relaxing one of an overworked parent who dreams of putting her feet up and enjoying a good book. As I’ve learned in nearly 20 years of psychology research, most recently at Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center (where I am associate director), this happiness metamorphosis is actually quite common.

Colleagues at other universities have discovered this truth as well. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania recently analyzed 12 million blogs and found that in those by bloggers in their teens and 20s, the word happy was usually accompanied by words like excited, ecstatic, or elated (e.g., “I’m so happy and excited to go to India!”). Bloggers in their 40s, 50s, and beyond, on the other hand, paired happy with words like peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved (e.g., “I’ll be so relaxed and happy in my hot tub”). Being “happy,” it seems, takes on new meaning as we acquire more birthday candles. And one kind of happy is not better or more fulfilling than the other—although nostalgia for youth often leads us to assume that. They are simply two different ways of experiencing satisfaction that result from two different life views.

rubber duck
Adam Voorhes for Reader’s Digest

Wild vs. Tame, Explained
At the Motivation Science Center, we studied this shift and coined terms for the psychological qualities on either end of the spectrum. Promotion motivation describes the urge we have to advance ourselves and be better off, along with the joy we feel when doing the things we believe accomplish those goals. Prevention motivation refers to the focus we place on maintaining what we value (including relationships and health) and the bliss that comes from running our life smoothly and feeling secure.

Teens and twenty-somethings tend to have stronger promotion motivation. They are more likely to be spontaneous and are open to saying yes to anything and everything that comes their way. Research by University of Zurich psychologist Alexandra Freund suggests that promotion motivation is dominant among those 26 or younger. The young are relatively more focused on the future and the possibilities it holds and less concerned with responsibilities and avoiding mistakes. As we get older or take on more (getting married, having kids, starting a career), we no longer focus primarily on the future—we have lots to protect and enjoy in the here and now. (My own shift from mostly promotion to mostly prevention came practically overnight, with the birth of my first child.) We’re no longer as interested in the new, because we’re more content with what we have. Prevention-focused people’s top priority—and biggest source of pleasure—is keeping everyone secure and healthy. While the ideal Saturday used to involve staying out all night and meeting new people, total bliss for a mature soul might consist of heading to yoga class and making a healthy dinner at home.

Consider, for example, the evolution of Angelina Jolie. In her youth, she was famous for her thrill-seeking wild side and provocative behavior. Today, she is a mother of six who recently underwent a preventive double mastectomy to ensure that she will be alive for as long as possible to care for her children. She is also known for her work as a special envoy for the United Nations. She projects the quiet confidence of a woman who has matured into prevention mode, cherishing the blessings in her life more than looking for her next adventure.

Of course, some people have a natural tendency toward one style or another going back to childhood, and their shift might not be as dramatic. Promotion and prevention are on a continuum—you can be strongly one or the other, or you can be somewhere in between. And where you fall on the continuum changes with your life experience. It’s correlated with age, but there are exceptions: Some young people are cautious and risk-averse, while a subset of senior citizens are adventurous risk takers.

Find Your Balance
What if your life has lots of excitement, but you’re never relaxed or content? Or what if you experience plenty of serenity but long for more exhilaration? It’s possible to feel you have too much of one kind of happiness and not enough of the other. Spontaneity and novelty are the antidotes to a life that’s veered too far into the realm of prevention, while doing something healthful and relaxing is a counter to a hectic, promotion-oriented existence. The only one who can judge if you are out of whack is you. Many people are mostly promotion or mostly prevention and are perfectly happy that way.

If you are like me and you find that your life has become more about pursuing peace and contentment than being pumped up and excited, rest assured that there is nothing wrong with you. You aren’t missing out on happiness; your happiness has evolved, just as you have. And even though this new version might seem a bit more low-key—and it is—that doesn’t mean it’s less wonderful or any less satisfying.

So if you want me, I’ll be in the tub for the next hour. Please do not disturb.

Is calm the new happy for you? Tell us in the comments below.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest