Finding Authentic Happiness in Unexpected Places
With the help of a computer program that tracks facial expressions, I had spent several weeks examining footage of participants describing their happiest memories. It may sound like an interesting topic, but by that point, in my mind, it was nothing more than data. An all-consuming curiosity had brought me to this lab, but the allure had faded (or maybe it was just obstructed by the growing piles of data I had to enter and papers I had to grade). One day, I muted the recordings of people’s happy stories so that I could concentrate on the program’s analysis. My eyes burned, and my mind felt numb. Without realizing it, I had let myself get bored again.
Then, something peculiar about the output caught my attention. It had nothing to do with my research, but I found myself drawn to it anyway. Most participants exhibited a combination of facial muscle micro-movements categorized as contentment or satisfaction (that nice, soft feeling we get when inhaling a fresh breeze or tasting a perfectly ripened strawberry), but every once in a while a spike in the data told me that participants felt an emotion called authentic happiness. As far as emotions go, authentic happiness is the real deal. It’s not a politely synthesized smile or a reaction to a good cup of coffee. It’s that all- encompassing sense of joy that feels like butterflies and champagne bubbles in your chest. It makes your eyes crinkly and your cheeks hurt from smiling. True, giddy, dancing-in-the- rain kind of happiness. Most participants didn’t experience it, but a few did. How come?
I turned up the volume and scoured the footage to see if a pattern existed. Sure enough, it did. The happiest participants shared memories that contained an element of surprise. They weren’t necessarily fairytale proposals or lottery victories. Many of the surprises weren’t even altogether pleasant. One woman described having to hobble down the aisle on her wedding day with a broken high heel. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed as she recalled how her friends and family giggled, laughed, and finally burst into applause when she made it all the way down to her groom. Not exactly something you’d plan into the perfect wedding, but it turns out that it’s not the perfectly planned and controlled moments that make us the happiest. It’s the surprising ones.
There it was again: a reminder that surprise can make a big difference in the way we experience the world. We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. I didn’t want to waste another minute of my life not feeling alive.”