Running with Bulls, Marrying a Stranger & Saving a Life: Happiness Lessons from 72 “Bucket List” Experiences
What made you happier – crashing the red carpet or living on a desert island?
Why did you change list #52 “Tantric Sex Lesson” to “Start a family tradition”?
How is happiness like an oxygen mask?
These are a few of the questions that make Sebastian Terry an interesting happiness case study.
My name is Jackson and I study happiness.
As a sophomore in college I had an “early-life crisis” about what I should do with my life. I realized all that matters is happiness. So why not study it?
I decided to major in happiness. I went on to win a positive psychology research grant, teach the first class on happiness at my university, and live as a Zen monk. These days I speak, teach, and continue to study “life’s most important subject”.
That brings me to Sebastian Terry – Seb for short.
Seb was lost and rather unsure of himself. At age 24 one of his best friends tragically passed away. This made him think – “if I were to die today, would I be happy with the life I’m living?”
So he decided to make a list of 100 things that would make him happy and get started (here’s his list).
This set him on a captivating journey of self-discovery and serving others (you’ll read more about this later). Along the way he’s learned about goals, adventures, and what makes life worth living. Seb is now a sought after speaker, former TV host, and founder of Kindsum – a global community of people helping people.
It’s not every day you come across someone who has boxed a world champion, lived on the street for a week, and naked skydived. Seb makes for an exceptional case study to explore happiness, particularly things like -- what should we go after? What is worth doing? And where does happiness come from?
That’s what you’re reading here.
I’m calling it a “happiness case study”.
I talked through Seb’s experiences with him and analyzed his stories to investigate what his life reveals about the nature of happiness. Given he’s had so many exceptional adventures, he is a great “happiness guinea pig”.
My hope is by investigating and communicating the underlying principles from Seb’s wide variety of life experiences, you as a reader will come away with valuable lessons and insights about happiness in your own life.
As you’ll read, you don’t have to do 100 crazy, life-changing things (although if you want to that’s fine!) – if you note the patterns and principles of what makes for happiness then you can uncover much more of it in your everyday life!
“Happiness Case Study”
TL;DR – A happy life is rich in experiences that allow you to explore something new or interesting, have fun, and overcome yourself or a challenge. These individual experiences cascade into a longer term feeling of progress towards becoming the best version of your authentic self. I call this pattern “authentic growth”. Included in this should be serving others. In most of Seb’s top experiences happiness comes from bringing happiness to others. So as you think about your life, you should aim for growth through overcoming challenges that you’re intrinsically motivated to do that also benefits others.
Read on for the in depth “happiness analysis” to see how we got to this summary…
What experiences brought the most – and least – happiness?
Below are Seb’s top and bottom happiness experiences with short commentaries from Seb (disclaimer – the bottom ones were still mostly “good experiences” but they returned relatively less happiness). The top 3 are noted...
HAPPINESS TOP 10
#2 Marry a stranger in Las Vegas – It was so odd and surreal but it made me feel capable and free. I realized that the world is a playground and everything is possible.
#15 Perform stand-up comedy – Used my creativity, faced a fear, and brought some joy to others made this special.
(TOP 3) #26 Help a stranger – I pushed Mark, an outdoorsman who became quadriplegic in his mid-20’s, for 13.2 miles finishing a half marathon together. I felt pride in overcoming a challenge but, more importantly, I felt a sense of service and compassion.
#29 1 week of silence – This was challenging at the beginning but it became a fascinating avenue for inner exploration, contemplation, and reflection.
#23 Deliver a baby - I cried tears of joy. I felt incredible connection and intimacy with the couple in the room and we had an unparalleled sense of clarity, unity, and purpose.
#36 Walk across France – This was a true adventure (with lots of exercise) and I built a lasting friendship with a guy I met along the way.
#43 Volunteer at an orphanage – I’ll never forget throwing a big party and seeing the joy it brought these kids. Despite what you might think, I’ve never experienced a happier place. I also felt a profound joy from giving back.
(TOP 3) #44 Represent a country – I trained my way onto the National Rugby Team for Mauritius. I overcame a meaningful, long-term challenge.
#90 Own my dream car – I got a 1979 VW Bus. This one is a bit materialistic but every time I drive it, it makes me and passers by smile.
(TOP 3) #67 Live on a desert island – I spent a week on a desert island. It was challenging but the solitude brought with it a certain peace.
HAPPINESS “BOTTOM” 10
#10 Chase a tornado – Something about seeing all devastation and consequences of the tornado while basically paying to be there on a tour bus made reality sink in. It didn’t feel right.
#72 Stay awake for 72 hours. It just sucked.
#78 Perform an original song – I think my expectations got the best of me. I was hoping for a stage and the attention of people who would add pressure. Ultimately I was shoved into a dark corner, basically out of view of everyone!
#92 Stay overnight in a haunted house – It seemed like all smoke, no fire – it didn’t feel legit.
#71 Play naked rugby – I broke my wrist which didn’t help and it was just okay overall.
#4 Raise $100k for a charity – This was odd. It didn’t fill me with joy even though I’m glad I did it. It felt like I wasn’t tangibly helping, I was just handing off money.
#20 Say yes to everything for 1 week – People began taking advantage of me (including friends). By the end there was no take away, I was just annoyed.
#11 Swim with a shark – It was a neat experience but it was not much of a challenge. And I felt like I was just there - I wasn’t really part of the experience.
#24 Publish an article – It didn’t meet expectations.
#28 Get my fortune read – Honestly it seemed like the lady was a bit of a hoax. I felt like I was along for the ride.
Lessons from the Happiest Experiences
There’s a challenge to studying happiness. It means a lot of different things.
Further, it has what I call “different dimensions”. I can talk happiness drinking a cold beer or happiness reflecting on how lucky I am to have built such a great life over the last 25 years.
Daniel Kahneman explains this difference as being happy with your life versus happy in your life.
There’s a more reflective sense of contentment and life satisfaction. And there’s the raw, in moment feeling of positive emotion. In this case study we’ll look at both ‘dimensions’ of happiness. And do our best to reconcile them into what I often describe as Happiness with a capital H.
This is similar to a term used in positive psychology and the science of happiness - “flourishing” or “wellbeing.” It’s a view of Happiness that captures the more experiential, moment to moment states of happiness as well as a pervasive, underlying current of happiness. Now let’s examine (capital H) Happiness lessons from Seb’s top experiences…
Happiness is the experience of progress towards the most authentic expression of yourself through overcoming obstacles and serving others. It’s growth through impact towards self-actualization.
Authentic growth – Across most of Seb’s experiences there is an element of overcoming yourself or a challenge.
By “overcome yourself”, I mean expanding your personal capability. It’s extending your comfort zone. It’s breaking through a fear or self-imposed limitation to increase your self-esteem. When you look at many of Seb’s experiences – especially the earlier ones like marrying a stranger or doing stand-up comedy – the experience itself was fun. But the real benefit came from overcoming himself by facing fear – in doing so this expanded his sense of capability and self-mastery.
Overcoming ‘external’ challenges is also important – especially when these challenges are meaningful and you’re intrinsically motivated to do them. Competing for the national rugby team required years of dedication. The experience with Mark – pushing him in a wheelchair through a half marathon - was similarly challenging. But as I pointed out – the crucial piece here is that overcoming these obstacles leads to progress on an authentic expression of yourself. For instance, when Seb stayed up for 72 hours it was challenging. But it lacked significance and connection to self-actualization, so it didn’t bring much happiness.
Importantly, Happiness comes from progress as much as – if not more than – outcomes.
Shakespeare famously explained this by saying “Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a similar view, explaining that from an evolutionary psychology perspective, we’re evolved to feel more joy from making progress towards our goal than from achieving it. This keeps us going – and surviving. The enjoyment of the outcome is comparatively short lived. The process of progress matters more. When you look at Seb’s experiences against the background of his whole life, you can see them as ongoing progress in an expression of self-actualization.
This pattern of progress on self-actualization through meaningful experiences of overcoming is what I call “authentic growth”.
Happiness for one and for all – Authentic growth doesn’t occur in isolation.
Significance comes from serving others. This aligns with modern psychology’s view of meaning: using your signature strengths to serve something greater than yourself (see Martin Seligman). Most of Seb’s happiest experiences involve serving others. Think of the joy and sense of fulfillment he felt from helping Mark finish the half marathon.
Seb has mentioned that happiness is like the oxygen mask announcement they make on flights – ‘please put your own mask on before helping others’. You must develop your own capacity through authentic growth in order to expand your capacity for serving others. Ultimately, peak experience comes through pursuing happiness for one and for all – for yourself and others.
Pausing for a moment, we have a picture of “capital H Happiness” as something that comes from authentic growth that serves others – progress towards self-actualization through overcoming challenging experiences that bring joy to yourself and others.
This seems like a fitting big picture snapshot. Here are a few other themes to keep in mind.
Effectance – Happiness is enhanced by having an immediate, tangible impact on the experience. All Seb’s top experiences placed him as the ‘protagonist’ with a marked effect on the situation. Think of helping to deliver a baby, performing stand-up, or walking across France. Each of these is a very immediate, engaging experience. On the other hand, when giving a check to charity and swimming alongside the shark (two bottom experiences) Seb felt he had a less tangible impact. He was just there rather than being an essential force in shaping the experience.
Exploration – Novel, interesting experiences are essential. Pretty much all Seb’s experiences appeal to a desire for exploration. This can be outer (walk across France) or, perhaps more importantly, inner (silence and desert island). I found it interesting that one week of silence and survive on a desert island were top experiences. These experiences offered a spaciousness to explore and contemplate the inner world. Happiness comes from exploration through novel, interesting experiences: exploration can be physical or intellectual – it can be inner or outer.
Fun – There’s not a lot to say here. It feels like in psychology and philosophy fun isn’t given the respect it deserves. We don’t look at ding dong ditching or going to the fair in the same way we do writing a novel or having a spiritual experience. But fun is fun! Fun is critical for happiness. Of course, there’s a need for temperance here, what we think of as having fun can become detrimental when taken to an extreme. But pursuing activities and experiences that simply seem like fun is an obvious – yet oft overlooked – source of happiness.
Active/Embodied – Most of the top experiences are what I describe as embodied. This means they involved connecting with the physical world (rather than the abstract). Think delivering a baby or playing rugby as opposed to working on a project or closing a deal. Experiences that are highly tangible – rather than vague or conceptual (like publish an article) were more rewarding. What’s more, many of them involved physical activity – like rugby, walking across France, or surviving on a desert island. It seems we should not discount the value of “bringing the body along for the experience” so to speak. Experiences that involve physical activity and engagement with the physical world are desirable.
What to avoid? Lessons from the least happy experiences…
The recipe for unhappiness is easy…
Set very high, idealistic expectations for something. Focus on the recognition you’ll get for doing the thing (rather than the process of doing it). Try to limit the effect you’ll have on the experience – be a passive bystander. Ignore other people – try to make yourself feel isolated or taken advantage of by them. Or, better yet, surround yourself with insincere people. And, for the cherry on top, limit your sleep and get hurt.
In most of Seb’s least happy experiences there is a problem of great expectations.
Even when an experience is good or above average, if it fails to meet expectations, it will be seen as unhappy. A great example of this is when Seb performed his original song in a crowded bar. It went well but he had imagined that the crowd would go crazy and give him a standing ovation. On a related note, it’s especially dangerous when these idealistic expectations are focused on the extrinsic rewards of doing something (as opposed to intrinsic motivation).
In performing the song, donating to charity, and publishing the article – it’s not that the activity was bad. But it seems Seb’s mind was slightly more focused on the outcome of being recognized for the thing than fully experiencing the thing itself (lack of process focus).
Experiences that lacked effectance – defined earlier as feeling you’re an essential force in shaping the situation – were also happiness duds. In most of these experiences Seb felt that instead of being the sort of protagonist of the experience, he was just along for the ride. The donate to charity experience is a great example. Even bringing happiness to others won’t bring as much happiness to you if you feel divorced from the impact you’re having (e.g. handing over a check used to build a hospital instead of helping to build the hospital).
Experiences that lacked a sincere connection to others – or worse yet – involved people who came across as insincere or inauthentic were also disappointing. On a related note, Seb’s least happy experience (chasing a tornado) placed him in a situation where he was witnessing the suffering of others firsthand and doing nothing to help them.
Actionable Application: How to happiness…
In summary – Look for fun, interesting and novel experiences where you have an impact on shaping the experience. These experiences should involve overcoming yourself or a challenge to bring joy to yourself and others. And they should align into a longer term authentic growth. In doing this try to keep your expectations in check and do things for intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) reasons. Get plenty of sleep and avoid people and situations that feel insincere.
As we part ways I want to leave you with how to apply what we’ve learned from this “happiness case study”. Consider this a practical approach to a happier life.
Think about experiences, activities, subjects, etc. that you’re genuinely interested in. Additionally, think of ways that you could challenge yourself (whether external obstacle or overcoming your own internal limitations).
Ask yourself, which have a sense of significance, authenticity, and service to others? In investing your time and effort into these things would you be staying true to yourself while growing into the person you wish to become?
If you spend some time thinking this way you should have some general ideas or a rather “fuzzy” vision for how you want your life to go. To make things a bit more concrete, try to think of experiences and activities in which you have a tangible impact on the situation, that would be fun (but not reckless), that would let you explore something novel or interesting, and bring your body along for the experience.
Now I’ll talk you through how you can apply this in your own life using a hypothetical character I’m calling Ned.
Meet Ned – he’s a senior manager at a large industrial company. He makes good money but isn’t overly happy. Things feel a little ‘blah’.
So he reads this and starts to think about what genuinely interests him – he likes to teach, he’s interested in cellular biology, he likes sailing, he loves reading about biology and the lives of famous scientists.
Ned thinks looking for ways to teach strangers would get him outside his comfort zone. As a bonus it would also be of service to others. He thinks about how taking a 1 month sabbatical to go on a sailing trip through the Caribbean would also be an optimal happiness experience – fun, exploration, embodied, effectance, and a challenge to overcome (lots of happiness checkmarks!). Finally, he imagines having conversations with some of the famous modern day scientists he likes to read about. Then he thinks – maybe he can. That would involve getting outside his comfort zone – authentic growth – and it would be a fun, interesting thing that would likely bring enjoyment to others.
So Ned starts with small steps – he posts signs around town, leave handouts at work, and reaches out to local community organizations about free science lessons he’s going to offer. He overcomes himself by having a conversation with his more senior manager about a one month sabbatical – surprisingly they reach a compromise. He sends a cold email to one of his favorite biology researchers seeing if he’d take 30 minutes for virtual coffee.
Can you see how these steps can begin to lead to a cascade of increasing happiness?
Say he starts offering classes to dozens of people in the community. This makes him feel much more capable and confident. He goes on the sailing trip and has an amazing experience – he reconnects with the joy of life’s adventure. The scientist he reached out to – a celebrity to Ned but a random professor to everyone else – is thrilled to chat and they have a great conversation.
Where will this all lead? Ned ditches his boring job to become an adjunct biology professor, he goes on to sail through other island chains, he starts a popular science podcast? Or he keeps things pretty much status quo and has some great experiences. Who knows?
The point is that you can use the patterns and principles identified in this case study to inform your approach to life. Model the actionable application and our hypothetical Ned in your own life. And in doing so, you can optimize for happiness.
The world is yours. And as Seb would say – time to start your list!
Your happiness experimenter – Jackson
Your happiness guinea pig - Seb
Read more about the Study of Happiness » studyhappiness.blog
Keep up with Seb’s adventures » sebastianterry.com
Thanks for reading The Study of Happiness! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.