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.

Next: The study of when you’re wilder—and why

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