The Hidden Key to Happiness: Participant Experiences

Do too much watching and not enough experiencing, and you wind up looking in the window of life or the smart phone.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Fifty percent of your happiness is genetic. Sorry, you can't do much about that. Another 10 percent comes from your circumstances (geography, family, health). So that leaves you with 40 percent of your potential happiness that you can actually do something about. This falls into the realm of what's known as "intentional activities." Your happiness depends on the activities you choose to participate in on this planet, your experiences. How are you spending your 40 percent?

We're programmed to blow that stake on one narrow choice, material items, but researchers have found that the biggest bang for your buck is to go for the experience instead. The participant experience is one of the most potent and least known paths to happiness and a thriving life beyond the office and android state. Your brain would take the riveting power of engagement any day over inanimate objects, if it wasn't so clogged with sedentary distractions.

Researchers Leaf van Boven of the University of Colorado and Cornell's Thomas Gilovich have found that we're happier when we choose experiences over material things. Whether it's a vacation, painting a canvas, or aikiko lessons, these moments of full engagement contact a deeply personal realm that feeds core self-determination needs. We're designed to step out, not veg out.

"Experiences really satisfy desires for self-actualization," Van Boven told me for my new book on the power of engaged experience, "Don't Miss Your Life." "They help people become the type of people they would like to become."

We're all head cases these days, locked in perpetual brainlock and analysis. Direct experience gets you out of the thought factory and into the life-participant column, alive to the moment. That's a good place to be, since most anxieties stem from the two tenses we're not in. Experiences are the nexus of Now, the choice of anyone who wants to make an immediate beeline to engaged presence. The road to life satisfaction runs straight through engagement, not status. It's not the money. It's not what's on the business card. It's not the popularity. It's the experience.

Experiences don't get on our radar because we're conditioned to go for tangible external rewards. Experience is an intrinsic affair, done for internal goals like fun and growth. But here's something that may make it easier to make the leap to a more experiential life: People actually like you better when they see you as someone with interesting experiences. Van Boven and his colleagues Margaret Campbell and Thomas Gilovich found in a 2009 study that people found the materially oriented to be less socially desirable but were keenly interested in the doings of experiential people. Experience is two mints in one: a direct route to your own happiness, and an admired path by others.

Why is this realm so potent? Experiences trump material items because they can't be compared to anyone else's experience. They're your personal event, the participation and impact determined only by you. Also, you don't habituate to experiences as you do with a new car or phone. The new car smell won't last, but the memory of screaming down a zip line will.

The interactive nature of experiences sets off multiple neuron firings in your brain that form memories that stick with you, creating the positive memories that remind you that you like your life. Think how vivid your vacation memories are, opposed to, say, last month at work. The more positive and novel the recent experiences you can recall, the higher your life satisfaction, report researchers Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Another reason experiences are so fulfilling is that they tend to be done with others, satisfying your core need for social connection.

The message drummed into us, though, is the opposite of the participant dynamic -- flip on a screen and watch. The drumbeat is for comfort, goodies, digital distractions. Brains were designed for novelty and challenge that you dig out and participate in yourself. Do too much watching and not enough experiencing, and you wind up looking in the window of life or the smart phone.

There's a skill-set needed to activate a participant life, tools I detail In "Don't Miss Your Life." They are things nobody ever tells you about that get you out of onlooker mode and in the middle of experiences so electric and sublime that you'll need to be checked for illegal substances. Some of the most important skills are those that open the door to direct experiences, from attention-directing to the pursuit of competence. You can't enter the experiential domain while twiddling your phone; you need full absorption, and if you don't have the desire to learn and improve at an activity, you'll never develop the competence to have it turn into a passion.

The magic of direct experience comes from its ability to root you fully in the moment of living. Anyone interested in the power of Now has to be an experience fan, since it offers immediate transport to the unfolding present. You can't be anywhere else than where you are when you're immersed in your experience. The action itself allows no room for the static of self-talk and worries about what's going to happen tomorrow or what you messed up yesterday. The ego gets benched, allowing the authentic self to step forward to enjoy, learn, or try without the judgment killjoy of the external agenda (how am I doing? what am I going to get out of it?). The experience itself is enough.

When you're in an activity where your skills meet a challenge, you're vaulted into the higher realms of optimal experience, or flow, a state of absorption so complete that your thoughts and deeds are one. This is as good as it gets on the third planet from the sun, as close to anything that can be imagined to what we know as happiness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, has put it.

I can vouch for that 100 percent when I'm slap-happy in the zone of my favorite activity, samba dancing, or immersed on the adventure trail of some exotic land or back-country ridge. All chaos and heartache vanishes in the moment of harmonic aliveness. There's a feeling of completeness that reminds me of a line by Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist. He said it's not the meaning of life we're after; it's the feeling of being fully alive.

Nirvana is now, and experience is its stage.