What Makes You Happy

Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became stuck in Antarctic ice. Before long it was crushed, ruined.

Shackleton and his 27-man crew then spent 19 months – from January 1915 to August 1916 – rowing 800 miles to safety in tiny lifeboats, with nighttime temperatures hitting 10 degrees below zero.

They were constantly frozen, soaked, hungry, and sleep-deprived.

They survived – and all of them did survive – on an occasionally captured seal and foraged seaweed.

It’s one of the most astounding survival stories you’ll ever hear.

But, for me, the most emotional part of the book Endurance came at the end, when Shackleton’s crew finally made it to a whaling station on South Georgia island, 1,600 miles east of Argentina.

Author Alfred Lansing writes:

Every comfort the whaling station could provide was placed at the disposal of Shackleton [and crew]. They first enjoyed the glorious luxury of a long bath, followed by a shave. Then new clothes were given to them from the station’s storehouse.

They were then served a hot meal, and slept for 12 hours.

Can you imagine?

Can you imagine how good it must have felt to have a bath, a hot meal, and a warm bed after being constantly frozen and starving for 19 months?

Even if the water was lukewarm and the food was half stale, that must have been one of the most pleasant and fulfilling evenings anyone has ever experienced.

A weird thing in life is that everyone strives for a good life because they think it will make them happy. But what actually brings happiness is the contrast between what you have now and whatever you were just doing.

The best drink you will ever taste is a glass of tap water when you’re thirsty.

The best food you will ever eat is fast food when you’re starving.

The best massage you will ever feel is sitting on a couch after a long run.

The best sleep you will ever experience is when your newborn finally sleeps through the night.

In his book on the final days of World War II, Stephen Ambrose writes about a wounded American soldier who’s carried back to the medic tent. He knows he’s going home – his war is over. “Clean sheets boys!” he yells back to his fellow soldiers who are left behind. “Clean sheets, can you believe it! Clean sheets!” Living in foxholes made soldiers daydream about normal life, and few things chased their imaginations like the dignity of clean sheets. Not money or status or respect or glory. Just the absolute joy of clean sheets.

Money is a lot like this, too. The richest you’ll probably ever feel is when you get your first paycheck, and your bank account goes from $5 to, perhaps, $500. The contrast that generates might be greater than going from $10 million to $20 million. Going from nothing to something is so much more powerful than going from a lot to super a lot.

The contrast, not the amount, is what makes you happy.

Two things stick out here.

Happiness is a fleeting emotion, because it’s triggered by a contrast in circumstances, but you quickly adapt to whatever new circumstances you’re in. Shackleton’s second hot meal, second bath, and second night’s sleep probably felt 1% as amazing.

But that shouldn’t be depressing. Instead of chasing happiness, which is fleeting, people should be after contentment, which is similar but more enduring.

When you realize how powerful expectations are, you put as much effort into keeping them low as you do into improving your circumstances. Happiness, contentment, joy … all of those things come from experiencing a gap between expectations and reality.

Shackleton’s men learned this. After their ordeal, they found so much joy in little things they’d never before considered. One sailor wrote in his diary: “One of the finest days we have ever had . . . a pleasure to be alive.”

Lansing wrote: “In this lonely world of ice and emptiness, they had achieved at least a limited kind of contentment. They had been tested and found not wanting.”

That’s about as good as it gets.