Give Yourself 9 Kinds of Happiness

How to gratify all your pleasure modules

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Source: kosmos111/Shutterstock

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.") My wife Carol and son Dave suggested that this isn’t just an intellectual issue, but a practical one as well. Why didn’t I offer some suggestions about how to achieve those different kinds of happiness? More than just critiquing me, though, they offered some very helpful suggestions. 

To give yourself a grand tour of the different states of happiness, here are a few places 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 figure out a difficult math problem. You know what you’re good at; now do it with a little more flair. Better yet, go volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Then take the time to pat yourself on the back.

2. Nurturant Love.

Find another living thing that needs some care. Take your child, niece, nephew, grandchild, or infant neighbor for a walk in one of those soft Snugli pouches. Or go to the local pet store, pick up a tiny little kitten, and be sure to look carefully at those big eyes. Aww, isn’t he cute.

3. Contentment.

Forget all those work projects and all your responsibilities. Turn on some relaxing music — perhaps Christopher Parkening playing Bach on classical guitar — and then run yourself a warm bath. When you’re done, bury yourself under the blankets with a good book (maybe 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 into feeling like it's working by making a detailed mental list of all the things you find relaxing.

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


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

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 someplace beautiful or just take a gander at National Geographic’s best photos of the year. There's psychological research suggesting that people usually underestimate how much pleasure they will get from time in nature (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011).

6. Amusement.

Ask your friends and family for their favorite jokes, put on the most ridiculous outfit you own, listen to Weird Al Yankovic, or read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

7. Attachment love.

Embrace someone in your family, hug a friend, or cook a nice meal for someone you like. All this will be helping them experience gratitude as well.  

8. Sexual desire.

If you 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. If you're 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, or invite that person to dinner. If you're not in the market at all for whatever reason, consider the research which has demonstrated that masturbation can help you sleep better, increase hormones that can boost your immune system, relieve menstrual pain for women and help to prevent prostate cancer for men.

9. Unadulterated pleasure.

Treat yourself to a meal in a nice restaurant. On a tighter budget, for time and/or money? Just order in a pizza from your favorite pizzeria, accompany it with a nice cold beer, and then follow with a bowl of chocolate gelato. Or cook up your own favorite dinner, and devote the time to relish it. 

A note of caution: Trying to be happy every day in every way is a fool’s errand. There is research suggesting that chronically craving happiness can actually make you unhappy. (See some sad facts about happiness.) And other research suggests that there are some good things about occasionally feeling bad. (Learn more about the bright side of sadness.) That said, though, there is nothing wrong with nurturing the experiences that make you feel positive in diverse and non-destructive ways, as long as you don’t fall into the pursuit of continual hedonism. Indeed, pride, the first positive emotion listed here, usually comes after hard work. 

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


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.