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.)

By Heidi Grant Halvorson from Health
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

rubber duckAdam 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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