How Aging Changes What Makes You Happy

“We are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them.” –Thomas Wolfe

“We are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them.”  –Thomas Wolfe

With increasing age, people get more pleasure out of everyday experiences; while younger people define themselves more by extraordinary experiences, a new study finds.

The study asked over 200 people between the ages of 19 and 79 about happy experiences they’d had that were both ordinary and extraordinary (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner, 2014).

Naturally, happy extraordinary experiences–like a expensive foreign travel–happen less frequently, while ordinary happy experiences–like seeing your family–are much more common.

Across all the age-groups in the study, people found pleasure in all sorts of experiences; both ordinary and extraordinary.

They enjoyed their hobbies, being in nature, travelling, eating, being in love and just relaxing.

But it was older people who managed to extract more pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences.

They got more pleasure out of spending time with their family, from the look on someone’s face or a walk in the park.

Younger people, in contrast, were more interested in defining themselves through extraordinary experiences. The authors explain:

“Young people actively look to define themselves and thus find it particularly rewarding to accumulate extraordinary experiences that mark their progression through life milestones and help them build an interesting experiential CV.”

Further experiments suggested that the focus on ordinary versus extraordinary is influenced by how much of life is still to come:

“Ordinary, mundane moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, the potential for these ordinary experiences to contribute to happiness increases as people come to realize their days are numbered.” (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner,2014).

These findings underline the importance of savouring experiences. Some of life’s greatest moment are over in a flash–sometimes with little fanfare or reflection.

Learning to savour those moments–whether they are ordinary or extraordinary–is a skill that takes practice, but can bring great rewards.

Image credit: Victor Bezrukov

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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