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Sometimes the Greatest Satisfaction in Retirement Comes from the Little Things

Category: Baby Boomer Retirement Issues

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.

Canyonlands - an extraordinary experience

Canyonlands – an extraordinary experience

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

Yoda makes the travel team

Yoda the cat

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.

A dog party

A dog party

For further reading:
For Some T’is A Gift to Be Simple
Best and Worst Things About Your Retirement
New York Times – Ordinary Experiences of Life Mean More

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.

Posted by Admin on January 9th, 2015


  1. My little pleasure? It’s playing tennis, both socially and on leagues. I started it in my late 40s, and I love the physical aspect, the social aspect, and the mental aspect.

    Enjoyed the column.

    Jan Cullinane, author, The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement

    by Jan Cullinane — January 10, 2015

  2. Most unusual research! Its scholarly approaches and methods are for studious community to digest, but for most of this blog audiences its premises and conclusions are sure worth exploring indeed. In theory, one’s age profoundly influences their judgment on daily experience, be it ordinary or extraordinary, and thus one’s meaning of happiness differs accordingly: “younger people tend to de?ne happiness in terms of excitement, enthusiasm, and high states of arousal, while older people de?ne happiness in terms of calm, peacefulness, and low states of arousal”. Well, that explains why when we were younger we tended to move around places, and yet as we’re getting mature we like to settle down in one peaceful place, doesn’t it? And what is the conclusion? “A happy life includes both the extraordinary and the ordinary, and the central question is not only which [experiences], but when [at younger or older age].” Notice these words above, “both”, “which” and “when” that constitute a happy life.

    There you go, folks, YOLO (You Only Live Once)—it’s not only to invoke extraordinary experiences that make you happy, but also to savor your ordinary things in life to make you fully content. Remember YOBADO, too! (You Only Born And Die Once). So cheers! 🙂

    by buddy — January 10, 2015

  3. I always tried to give my children the opportunities to experience the extraordinary but to appreciate all the small daily
    things mentioned . Friends, art music nature and of course pets. Many small ordinary things to find to enjoy. I don’t think you have to wait until you are older. Some people never learn to appreciate……

    by kathy — January 10, 2015

  4. I’m with you, kathy. The sunrises and sunsets. A walk with a friend. Even a favorite piece of music played on the radio – a wonderful surprise! So much to enjoy and be grateful for.

    by ella — January 11, 2015

  5. getting more social, family n friends, quiet relaxation ( reading, tv, music, enjoying the critters in the back yard). We still have osome exciting big trips on our wish list but a ride in the car just seems just as good nowadays. Also eating foods I would never try before and actually liking them. Think as we get more time to our selves we like to cook and enjoy spending time on the deck
    Relaxing. I’m looking forward to a relaxed
    Stress free semi retirement. ????

    by Vic — January 11, 2015

  6. I agree completely. Where we live now we do not have friends. People here are all working or running their kids all over and while we have lived in several different cities in the 40+ years of our marriage we have never had this experience before.

    So we are now retired and the one major item on our list is finding a community. We are looking in the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida. We have cold winters here and hot summers and will likely only be living in the retirement area for 9 months of the year. We want people who have time for lunch, golf, playing cards, sitting on the porch and just talking but we need that social contact and miss it terribly.

    So, all of you out there, tell us where we need to live!


    by Vicki — January 12, 2015

  7. To Vicki, We just closed on our home in December. Trilogy of Orlando in Groveland, FL. After a lot of thinking and looking this is the best fit for us. This 55 + community is reasonably priced and is located 25 mi north of Disney, We are currently……. I guess you would call it a transition period.. Currently my husband has 2 more years before retirement and I just started collecting SS. So far it is working the way we expected. Not moving everything at once and slowing furnishing the new home. Our kids will be taking most of the furniture we have here. Our kids and grandkids are looking forward to visiting us and actually we leave this Friday to go down for 10 days. Our daughter and her family going back with us in March for spring break and Lego land, So far so good and as far as friends and activities Trilogy has lots. We initially attended a retirement class through my husbands work and this is what opened our eyes regarding where to live, taxes, and planning. Thought about NC, GA, TN and FL. Florida seem to fit and we are excited about our future. Currently live in Maryland. Not a retirement tax friendly state. Yes it will be tough leaving kids and grandkids but we think everyone will adjust. As you said I don’t see my neighbors very much and our children are busy with jobs, school, kids and schedules. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to worry about us in our later years. I want them to visit and have fun. Plus we will be returning home for them when needed.
    As far as health we will deal with that when the time comes. With Gods grace.
    Vickie in Maryland

    by Vickie — January 13, 2015

  8. Excellent article. In many ways, less is more.

    by John H — January 13, 2015

  9. When my husband and I retired, we moved to Lucca, Italy. We love to travel when it fits into our budget but the greatest joys are being with friends, working in the garden, spending time with each other. Enjoying the small things in life that make it so very wonderful.
    We also love when family and friends come from the states to visit.
    In my case more is not more

    by Jan Pairsh — January 14, 2015

  10. This is great validation for what I’ve known would be my life choices in retirement. I’m living a Small Life now, and it’s a sustainable lifestyle for retirement because the costs will be approximately what I’m currently spending. Of course I’ll have to make some adjustments, and I will downsize my home by choice, but the day-to-day will be consistent with what it is now: a life that embraces the amazing ordinary joys of living. A key to my success: shopping is not one of my hobbies.

    by Brickhorse — January 14, 2015

  11. Excellent food for thought, as is the NY Times source article in your link.

    The closer we get to retirement, the more my husband and I consider, reconsider, plan and revise those plans. Perhaps we are ignoring the ordinary in favor of grander schemes. When I consider our temperaments and what we love, it’s obvious that the ordinary will likely bring us far more pleasure than the extraordinary.

    It seems he and I would be wise to re-prioritize some of our plans, placing more resources and emphasis on simple, everyday pleasures.

    by JCarol — January 17, 2015

  12. JCarol,
    I find i, too, enjoy the simple everyday moments and events more than the larger, grandiose schemes. That’s why i want to have much of what i love around me, or at least near by, upon retiring.

    by ella — January 18, 2015

  13. Speaking of little enjoyable things. Here is an old radio story called: Three Skeleton Key. It is an interesting story where Vincent Price plays the main character.

    March 17, 1950 Escape version of Three Skeleton Key. Stars Vincent Price. Considered by many to be the best performance of this story.

    Just click on the arrow at the top where the ‘static line’ appears. The audio should start playing. I listened to this story this morning. I loved it! This was the main entertainment before TV took off. In certain ways better than TV because you can use your own imagination and that sometimes is scarier! Hope you enjoy!

    by Louise — March 12, 2017

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