January 10, 2015 — A lot of people have big plans for the exciting things they are going to do when they retire. Undoubtedly many of these will be memorable experiences and a source of pleasure. Now a new study puts a different perspective on that pursuit. The study looks at the kinds of experiences – ordinary vs. extraordinary – that create the most long term happiness. The biggest finding was this – as we age we tend to get just as much satisfaction from ordinary experiences as we do those extraordinary ones.
The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, “Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences“. Using analysis from Facebook posts, the authors of the study found some some surprising answers. It also mentioned earlier research that shows that experiences provide people with much more happiness than material possessions.
Differences between younger and older people
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that younger people find significant joy and satisfaction in unusual experiences. These are the kind of things that they tend to post about on Facebook with relish. Older people also still enjoy that once in a lifetime trip like a safari, but the big difference for them is that also tend to get great pleasure from ordinary pleasures too.
Going against the grain
The significance of the ordinary over the extraordinary goes against all kinds of popular wisdom. For example, the study’s authors start with a quote from one of America’s most admired public figures, Eleanor Roosevelt: “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Similarly in movies like “The Dead Poets Society” the young students are advised (in this case by Robin Williams) to pursue carpe diem – seize the moment for we won’t be here long. The study’s findings are more similar to those of the actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in “Bucket List”, where after a round of thrilling adventures like sky-diving and mountain climbing, these terminally ill men find out that sitting around the kitchen sharing memories with family members is much more satisfying.
What kind of experiences are Ordinary, and which are Extraordinary?
The study asked respondents to rate 12 kinds of experiences as either ordinary (everyday) or extraordinary (rare). The results are interesting, and even a bit surprising The most highly rated on the excitement meter were life milestones and travel/culture – almost every recognizes them as unusually exciting. Yet slightly more people rated romantic love as ordinary than extraordinary. Social relationships, treats, and luck were much more often rated as ordinary than otherwise.
Implications for us Baby Boomers
This study should provide an important, cautionary message for us boomers. While we will still get the charge we were hoping for from that river trip down the Rhine or skydiving, it would be foolish to let those kinds of experiences define us. Instead, we should be seeking out those ordinary experiences that consistently bring happiness. Everyone should have their own list, but the ones mentioned by the authors would certainly be good starting points:
– Watching a movie with spouse
– Cuddling with dog
– Taking a shower after a hot afternoon
– Watching things prosper in your garden
– Going for a bike ride
– Conversation with son
– Enjoying the sun on the porch
– Getting a text from a friend
The New York Times article, “For Some, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple“, reviews other ordinary experiences related by its reporter and the 2 researchers.
The triumph of ordinary – why?
The authors of the study reviewed the literature to try understand why older people get so much satisfaction from ordinary pursuits. Some of their findings:
– Material pleasures tend to be solitary and are quickly diminished by time
– Experiential pleasures tend to be social, an aspect that enhances the happiness they bring.
– Extraordinary experiences are always memorable – both for young and old
– We enjoy ordinary pleasures more as we age not only because they are usually social in nature, but also because of our increased maturity, and we recognize that our time is limited.
Comments? What is your experience? Are you finding enjoyment in commonplace activities that you didn’t have before. Or are a person who needs big thrills to get a big kick out of life. Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.