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What Makes People Happier than Sex and Chocolate?

Chocolate Cake Alain Limoges

Alain Limoges

Susan E. Wills - published on 09/02/14

A new study from the U.K. discovers surprising answers

Women’s mags—at least the ones that line supermarket check-out counters—seem obsessed with the euphoria-producing properties of sex and fine chocolates. Men’s mags seem focused on the latest coolest stuff that will make them desired by women and envied by men.

A new study suggests both men and women might be better off looking into…scrapbooking.

An Opinion Matters study surveyed 2,040 adults in the United Kingdom, and found that 80% of respondents “were happiest when reminiscing about old times with friends and family.”

Chocolate (at 17%) and “even sex (38%)” fell behind reminiscing (45%) in providing “a greater, more prolonged emotional boost.”

What events produced the happiest memories?  

1.  the birth of their children, 45%
2.  a particular holiday, 32%
3.  meeting their partner, 30%
4.  Christmas, birthdays and other celebrations (% not given)
5.  wedding day, just over 20%.

The least popular “favorite memory” was a job promotion, cited by only 4% of respondents. Singles seeking affirmation through climbing the institutional ladder perhaps?

The survey also asked about the type of reminiscing that gave the “biggest emotional lift,” and found that “looking through old photos of happy times” came in first, at 53%. Recalling the past in conversations with relatives gave the second highest emotional boost, at 36%. In third place (25%) was looking at photos of parents and grandparents.

The study’s sponsor, Richard Grant, released the findings today in conjunction with the launch of lifetile, a free online service he created that allows users to “securely build and organise the story of their life and share it, or parts of it, with the people who matter most.” He notes that:

We have now reached a stage where we are so busy capturing everything, the second it happens, that we risk losing sight of why we are doing it – we forget to pause and look back at the unfolding story of our lives, and the things that really matter, moving instead from one status update to the next.

Lifetile is a way to move forward from the shoebox of photos under the bed and the 10,000 random photos posted on our flickr accounts to build and share with loved ones a coherent story of our lives and those people and events most important to us.

Why would reminiscing about the past rank higher than current experiences, which would seem to be more vivid at least? There is evidence from neuroscience that our minds revise and embellish our memories, making them less factual and, perhaps, more happy (or more frightening) than the circumstances actually were.

But I think the answer lies in the fact that chocolates and sexual intimacy (even with a beloved spouse) are not nearly enough to fulfill the longings of the human heart and certainly not for very long. Lasting happiness is found in self-giving, offering and receiving real love—the sacrificial kind where the best interests and needs of another (one hopes, many others) are put ahead of our own. Pope St. John Paul II has identified this as the very meaning of human life.

At the birth of their first child, I think that most parents find themselves overwhelmed by emotions they never before experienced—a love (there should be another word for it!) for the little creature they are now able to hold that is palpable. After the birth of my first grandchild, my daughter confided, "I never really understood how much you love me until now." And subsequent births recapture that joy in the bonding of family members.

As for those who recall vacation travel with the greatest happiness, don’t imagine that they were traveling alone. Have you ever gone to a movie alone? The pleasure is so little compared to sharing the experience with family or friends.

Holiday travel is special not because of the destination as much as having uninterrupted time with loved ones. Friends and childless couples can together discover and share novel experiences. For families, these are treasured times because mom and dad, temporarily freed of the responsibilities that take up most of their daily lives, can lavish all their attention on their surprised and grateful children.

All the happiest memories are made, in short, because they involve relationships with people who love us and whom we love.

Does today’s culture recognize this truth? Given our fevered pursuit of entertainment, sensual pleasures and the acquisition of wealth, celebrity and power, it seems not.

The concept of “levels of happiness” comes from an insight by Aristotle and is today promoted through the Center for Life Principles. Level One happiness—the sensual pleasures that our celebrity media and corporations have elevated to the highest level (mainly to sell stuff)—brings only fleeting pleasure that must constantly be re-experienced or replaced with newer, better models and people. You know something is gravely wrong when videogamers die with a controller in their hands.

Level Two happiness is the satisfaction of the ego in feeling superior, more admired, more popular and successful than others. It isolates us in opposition to others and can’t produce lasting happiness because (1) we are not giving ourselves, our talents, our love to anyone and (2) we will always be insecure knowing that others may outshine us tomorrow.

Level Three happiness, seen in the survey responses, reflect the human desire (of healthy, mature, psychologically balanced humans anyway) to care for others, to sacrifice and want to make the world a better place, to contribute to the common good.      

And Level Four recognizes that the uniquely human desire for goodness, truth, beauty and justice leads us to God and to a spiritual and creative life that transcends the mundane aspects of earthly existence.

The survey says what the magazines won’t: Set your hearts on others, not on the things that bring only fleeting pleasure. And I’ll add, set your hearts on God and he’ll show you how to live your life to the full.

Susan E. Wills is Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

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