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.

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

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