Anne Lamott and I are friends. OK, not personally, but I follow her on Facebook. (We did have a moment a decade ago when I shook her hand after she gave a talk up in Berkeley. But anyway.) When her latest Facebook post popped up in my news feed this morning, a bunch of bells went off. Abso-effing-lutely, I thought. I'll have what she's having. In her funny and inimitable way, she wrote about her unexpected disappointment after doing a "once-in-a-lifetime writerly thing" and the emptiness she felt once it was all over:
One of those high octane events where you just KNOW you will feel completely better about yourself for the rest of your life in every way, because it means you will have truly arrived... And I got VERY lost. It has taken me four days, two Kissing dogs, church, three hikes, two huggy girlfriends, and two visiting brothers for me to get found.
Her point was that feeling whole, being happy, is an inside-out kind of deal, rather than vice-versa:
My entire life I have believed that there was something I could achieve, own, lease or date that would make me feel permanently whole, and I'm pretty sure that this side of eternity, this will be my default mode. If only THIS would happen, or if only that would fall into place, or if I just met the right person, or got the right review, or got to live in a house with a fill-in-the-blank... But the horrible truth of life is that this whole less, being friends with your own heart, is ALWAYS going to be an inside job.
No kidding. It's something we've written about a lot on our blog and in our book, Undecided, which, if you have in your to-read pile, just flip straight to the last two chapters. What Lamott wrote and what we found in our research on the science of happiness is this: That Next Best Thing? It might make you giddy for a while. But the elusive thing we call happiness? Probably not for the long haul. As we wrote once before:
We've bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook). Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo. And, of course, scores well, too. Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot). A closet full of killer boots. (OK, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club. And granite in the kitchen.
But here's the spoiler: Quantitative research by UC-Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness, found that happiness is about 10 percent due to changed circumstances, like, for example, the blue pearl granite on my counter-tops. The rest? Your genes, your life and how you deal with it. In other words, all you, baby.
There's a theory called the hedonic treadmill, and what it means is that we adapt to new situations, whether winning the lottery or getting fired from a job. Our happiness quotient might spike -- or plummet -- at first, but then we revert. And as Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality and a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University found, the one-shot rush you get from, say, buying a new car or getting a raise is fleeting and, in fact, not nearly as lasting as the sense of well-being you get from meaningful experiences, whether large or small. Taking a vacation, say, or spending time doing the stuff you love or with the people you love -- the memories of which can stick with you, change you and teach you something significant about your Self. That's the stuff, research shows, of which happy is made.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am as aspirational and as ambitions as the next woman Maybe more so. I would also be the last to assert that we should blow off our dreams, quit our quest to break through the glass ceiling at work, rise above that nasty 77 cents on the dollar, or stop fighting for true gender equity. But what I think is this: Maybe what we need to do is separate the outside from the inside.
Granted, being a woman of (ahem) a certain age, this may be all the product of hindsight, one of the few benefits of growing older. But what I have come to realize, and what Lamott reminded me today, is that the inner sense of well-being, the kind you can sink into like a comfy pillow after a long hard day, has more to do with who you are than what you do or what you have. The fatter paycheck, the once-in-a-lifetime writerly thing, that bigger better kitchen may be all that -- and, in fact, probably are. But happiness itself, the kind that lasts? Something else entirely.
And often, that something else arises completely unannounced, triggered by a random memory that reminds you what it takes to throw that smile on your face, that puts you in touch with who you are and what you value. As it turns out, I had one of those moments just this morning when, listening to music while out on a run, up popped Bruce belting out "Pink Cadillac." Which triggered all kinds of memories, every single one of them delicious. (I'll share. Just ask.)
And when I took a moment to reflect, I had an 'aha' moment, not unlike Lamott's. It reminded me what, within my own private universe, my own sense of happiness is all about. And that smile? Still there.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.