I am working my way through my happiness research and learning a lot these days! Right now I’m focusing on Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which claims that what sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to consider the future. I really enjoy learning about how our brains work and it’s bringing me right back to my college days with my psych professors. (I double majored in psychology and human services and have had much more opportunity in my career to draw on my human services education than psych, but I find psychological theory fascinating.)

I’m still taking a lot away from Gretchen Rubin’s book, though, which has been a lot more practical and applicable to my everyday life than a lot of the theory I’ve been reading. My first takeaway is what she calls her “first splendid truth”: To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. What a good place to start!

I’ve already talked about how an atmosphere of growth helps my well-being, but I’ve also been thinking about those first three elements — good, bad, and right. Now, I spent enough time navel-gazing in college (did I say I majored in psychology and human services? Sorry, I meant navel-gazing and being neurotic), but I think there is a time and a place for self-reflection. I’m hoping that being more self-aware in these areas will allow me to make decisions and build habits that will help me to continue to feel good. So to do this, I spent some time thinking about those three things — feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right — and listed a few applicable items in each area. This got me thinking about what I can be doing more of, or less of, in both simple and not-so-simple ways.

I started out by thinking of those little things in life that make us happy — for me it’s things like lighting scented candles, keeping funny pictures of my cats on my phone, buying really good whole-bean coffee instead of the cheaper ground stuff, and keeping fresh flowers around. In essence, doing those things that make us happy because they make us happy, but not in a self-indulgent way, in a self-care way.

Which then made me wonder: where do we draw the line between selfish indulgence and self-care?

I think we know where on the spectrum Teaker falls.

First I started wondering whether selfish indulgence is necessarily wrong. I don’t think it is, in black and white, but I do believe that it’s a fallacy to think that always saying yes to yourself will make you happier. (See again: atmosphere of growth.) To me it’s like eating candy: a few Hot Tamales yes; an entire box of Hot Tamales no. And to be honest, this is something that I’ve struggled with over the years.

I think good self-care requires both self-awareness and a sense of balance. It also requires me to be honest with myself even when I don’t like what I’m hearing — if I’m tempted to skip a workout, for instance, I might really convincingly argue that I’m too tired or that I deserve to stay home and watch House Hunters or sleep a bit later. But is that going to make me happy?

Over the last few years I’ve discovered that the more I say yes to every whim, the less it contributes to my overall happiness. Small indulgences here and there do boost my spirits, but when they become everyday habits, they lose their luster. (Researchers call this hedonic adaptation.) This is why I don’t make popcorn every time I think about it (which is often) or buy every skein of yarn that catches my eye in the Needle Lady. It’s also why before I was pregnant, I used to drag myself out of bed at 5:30 to go running before work when what I wanted to do in the moment was keep sleeping. Plus, not challenging myself leaves me stagnant and lazy — not happy. I don’t think I have it in me to live a really Spartan lifestyle — I don’t have trouble indulging, generally — and so for me, the balance between indulgence and self-care can be tricky to find. How do I know when my actions are coming from a place of nurture and not selfishness?

It’s pretty clear Buddy lacks balance in his life.

For one thing, I do think it’s important to not overthink it. Overthinking rarely gets anyone anywhere. Instead, I find the more I’m honest with myself, the easier it is to see when I’m genuinely taking care of myself vs. looking for an easy fix. This is the tricky part — it’s not like there’s a checklist I can consult. Sometimes I am too tired, sometimes it is better to stay home and watch House Hunters, sometimes I should sleep a bit later. The hard part is knowing how to identify those sometimes. It’s learning how to say yes without always saying yes. I’m finding that prioritizing my happiness sometimes means sacrificing a current sense of “cheap” happiness for a deeper, more meaningful sense of peace and joy.

So when it comes to boosting my own happiness through those little things I mentioned above, I wanted to think more about things that I could maintain as part of my life, and not ways in which I could continue spoiling myself in the name of that cheap, arbitrary, false happiness. Buying the good coffee might be an unnecessary indulgence to some, but to me it’s a worthwhile one because it means my morning coffee almost always tastes better than anything I can get at Starbucks and helps me to start my day feeling good. Likewise, I keep fresh flowers in the house a lot because they boost my spirits, and scented candles make my living room feel so homey. And when I’m seeking to invest in my personal happiness in a long-lasting way, these are the kinds of “indulgences” I’m really after.