Study: Ordinary Experiences Make Us Happier as We Get Older

Extraordinary moments provide happiness throughout life, but as we realize our days our numbered, the small moments count for more.
Saad Shalash/Reuters

Problem: The problem is The Bucket List. The 2007 Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman film introduced the non-italicized non-capitalized term “bucket list” (a list of things one wants to do before one "kicks the bucket") into our vocabulary. Sure, it’s often a punch line, but it’s also a reminder one day we will die and before we do, will we have done enough extraordinary things to feel okay about it? (It is never, never, never enough.) This is a conception of a good life as a collection of Life tiles, the ones you’d get at the end of the board game that said things like “Write the Great American Novel” or “Swim English Channel.”

Are those the moments that make us happy? Or can we find our joy in smaller, everyday moments? A study forthcoming from the Journal of Consumer Research says it depends on how old we are.

Methodology: Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania first measured the happiness brought by extraordinary versus ordinary experiences simply by asking people. They had 221 participants aged 18 to 79 recall either an extraordinary or ordinary moment and rate how much it contributed to their happiness.

Ordinary, happy experiences included things like “I had a long and fun conversation with my son,” and “Getting a yummy frappuccino!” Examples of extraordinary experiences from the study include “Went on a vacation to Hawaii” and “Watching the birth of kittens.”

They also had outsiders rate these experiences and how happy they would be if they had them. Other experiments checked the effects of sharing an experience with others, of how much time a person felt they had left to live, and of whether the person thought the experience was “self-defining.” One experiment also had participants rate whether the experience they most recently shared in a Facebook status was ordinary or extraordinary.

Results: The extraordinary moments that would end up on the Life tiles of your life always contributed strongly to happiness, no matter the person’s age. But older people felt that ordinary moments contributed to their happiness much more than younger people did. The experiments showed that older people saw ordinary moments as more self-defining than young people, and a perception of the future as limited led to a higher value placed on ordinary experiences as well.

Implications: “Extraordinary experiences, which are rare and fall outside daily routines, capture people’s attention and endure in memories, affording happiness at any stage of life,” the study reads. “Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

This study cites The Bucket List in its intro, as well as Dead Poets Society’s call to “Carpe Diem.” (They also reference YOLO, and I think now’s a good time to acknowledge that once a term makes its way into academic studies, it’s probably no longer hip.) But according to the study’s results, checking items off our bucket lists may be more important when we’re young.  When we’re older, we may get just as much joy checking something off our to-do list.

The study, "Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences," appeared in Journal of Consumer Research.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Health

Just In