For The Holidays, Give Yourself 9 Kinds of Happiness

As I described recently, a review of neuroscientific, behavioral, and evolutionary research suggested that positive emotion is not one simple thing, but nine different states (see The 9 varieties of positive emotion). 

Source: Douglas T. Kenrick, own photos, used with permission

After talking with my wife Carol and son Dave, they suggested that this isn’t just an intellectual issue, but a practical one.  Why didn’t I offer some suggestions about how to achieve those different kinds of happiness?  Better yet, why don’t I encourage readers to give themselves a big fat holiday present – set yourself up to experience each of these different flavors of positive emotion?  But better than just critiquing me, they offered some very helpful suggestions. 

Source: David Lundberg Kenrick, Subliminal Prime Productions photo, used with permission

So, if you want to give yourself a grand tour of the different states of happiness, here are a few ideas about where to start:

1. Pride:  Pick something that might be a little difficult, but that you know you can accomplish, and just do it.  Finish a challenging work project, paint something, climb a wall in the rock gym (or set another attainable exercise goal if you don’t like heights), or figure out a difficult math problem.  You know what you’re good at, do it with a little more flair than usual.  Or better yet, go volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  Then take the time to pat yourself on the back.

Source: Carol Lee Luce, photo by Douglas T. Kenrick, used with permission

2. Nurturant Love: Find another living thing that needs some care.  If your sister or neighbor has a small daughter, take her for a walk in one of those soft Snuggli front pouches.  Or go to the local pet store and pick up a tiny little kitten.  Be sure to look carefully at those big eyes.  Aww, isn’t he cute. 

3. Contentment: Forget all those challenging work projects, and all your responsibilities.  Turn on some relaxing music (maybe Christopher Parkening playing Bach on the classical guitar), and then run yourself a warm bath.  When you’re done, go into bed, and bury yourself under the blankets with a good book propped up on the pillows (nothing too exciting, political, or adventurous, try Calvin & Hobbes, or Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The gene: An intimate history, or Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is true).  And if your compulsive mind starts to think too many distracting thoughts about what you’re not accomplishing, trick it by making a detailed mental list of all the things you find relaxing.

4. Gratitude:  Write a letter of thanks to someone who has touched your life in some way, or make up a thankful list to share with someone close to you (see Lyubormirsky, 2008, for a review of literature on the benefits of gratitude).  Oh, Dave and Carol, thanks for helping out with this list.

5. Awe:  Take a hike in some place beautiful (even if you’re in New York city, go to Central Park and look at the skyline), or take a gander at National Geographic’s best photographs of the year.  Wow!  And there’s psychological research suggesting that people usually underestimate how much pleasure they will get from a hike out in the natural world (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011; see Do you underestimate the joys of nature?

6. Amusement:  Ask your friends and family to tell you their favorite jokes.  Help them get in the mood by wearing the most ridiculous outfit you can find (I am going to the closet now to find my psychedelic tie-dyed t-shirt and that baseball cap with the Elvis Presley memorial stamp emblazoned across the front).  Listen to Weird Al Jankovich singing Word Crimes or Amish Paradise.  Read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

7. Attachment love: Hug someone in your family, hug a friend, or cook a nice meal for someone you like. All this will be helping them experience positive emotion number 4 as well.  

8. Sexual desire: This one may either seem too difficult or too easy, but… If your are in an intimate relationship, treat your partner to a romantic dinner, look into his or her eyes, tell them something you find desirable about them, then give them a long massage afterwards.  If single, say “Hi” to someone you find attractive (Michael Cunningham found that to be the most successful pick up line, see the reference below), or seek out someone you find attractive who likes the taste of beer (see “What’s the 1 best question to predict casual sex”), or invite someone you find attractive to dinner (even if they don’t like the taste of beer).  If you’re not in the market for a mate, and if you are not a devout Catholic, consider saying something nice to left hand.  A quick look online suggests that actual research has demonstrated masturbation is good for you in various other ways: helping you sleep better, increasing hormones that can help your immune system, relieving menstrual pain for women, helping prevent prostate cancer for men.  Go ahead, look it up if you need an intellectual justification.

9. Unadulterated pleasure: Treat yourself to a meal in a nice Italian restaurant.  I am practically drooling just opening the menu for Marcellino Ristorante in nearby Scottsdale, where I intend to order their homemade tagliolini, zuppa di pesce, pair that with a glass of rosso di montalcino, and then finish off with panna cotta and fresh berries for dessert.  If you’re on a tighter budget of time and/or money, just order a pizza from your favorite pizza joint, accompany it with a nice cold beer, and then follow with a bowl of Häagen-Dazs chocolate gelato.  

Warning label.  I should end with a note of caution:  Trying to be happy every day in every way is something of a fool’s errand.  There is actually research suggesting that chronically craving happiness may make you unhappy (see some sad facts about happiness). And there is other research suggesting that there are some good things about occasionally feeling bad (see the bright side of sadness)

That said, though, there is nothing wrong with nurturing experiences that make you feel positive in non-destructive ways, as long as you don’t fall into the pursuit of continual hedonism.  Indeed, pride, the first positive emotion on the list above, usually comes after hard work. 

Related blogs:

How to spend your way to happiness

Do you know these 9 varieties of positive emotion?

Overcoming the 5 obstacles to kindness

10 gems of wisdom for life on earth. My two cents (actually a dime) on how to survive as a hominid.

Do you underestimate the joys of nature


Cunningham, M. R. (1989). Reactions to heterosexual opening gambits: Female selectivity and male responsiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15(1), 27-41.

Forgas, J.P. (2013). Don’t worry, be sad! On the cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal benefits of negative mood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 225–232.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222–233.

Kenrick, D.T. (2011).  Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin.

Nisbet, E.K., & Zelenski, J.M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability.  Psychological Science. 

Mukherjee, S. (2017). The gene: An intimate history. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Oveis, C., Hertenstein, M., Simon-Thomas, E., & Keltner, D. (2017). Beyond happiness: Toward a science of discrete positive emotions. American Psychologist. 72, No. 7, 617–643. 

Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon and Schuster.


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