Happiness: What's Age Got To Do With It?

Happiness and its determinants have recently peaked the interest of researchers in fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, economy, and consumer research.  A study conducted by Amit Bhattacharjee (Dartmouth College) and Cassie Mogilner (University of Pennsylvania) adds to this growing body of literature by investigating the relationship between experiences and happiness.  Specifically, Bhattacharjee and Mogilner seek to answer the question:  how does age affect the happiness from ordinary and extraordinary experiences?

They define ordinary experiences as "those that are common, frequent, and within the realm of everyday life. Extraordinary experiences, on the other hand, are uncommon, infrequent, and go beyond the realm of everyday life."  Their study consists of eight mini-studies exploring how age determines the happiness from ordinary and extraordinary experiences: "After confirming that this dimension spanning from ordinary to extraordinary is a meaningful way to distinguish between happy experiences (studies 1A and 1B), we examine the relative happiness associated with experiences that participants recall (studies 1A, 1C, and 2B), plan (study 2B), imagine (studies 1B and 2C), and share on Facebook (study 2A). We test for the role of age by measuring actual age (studies 1A–1C, and 3A–3B), and by measuring (studies 2A–2B) and manipulating (study 2C) psychological age through the amount of time people feel they have left. Studies 3A and 3B then explore potential explanations for this pattern of results and identify the underlying role of self-definition."

They find that:

  • Extraordinary experiences generate greater happiness than ordinary experiences when individuals are young;
  • But ordinary experiences generate increasing happiness as people get older;
  • Happiness does not differ between ordinary and extraordinary experiences when individuals have limited time remaining.
  • Self-defining experiences are critical to happiness.  But while young people look to define themselves through extraordinary experiences, older people come to view ordinary experiences as self-defining: "the experiences that best define the self shift from the extraordinary to the ordinary over one’s life span."
  • From a marketing point of view, consumers’ reactions to products associated with each type of experience (ordinary/extraordinary) reflect the happiness they gain from the experiences in their lives. 

Bhattacharjee and Mogilner conclude that

"over the course of our daily lives, we must do our best to select experiences that are likely to make us happy. Even amidst the dizzying, infinite array of possible experiences, our findings suggest that there is underlying order. A happy life includes both the extraordinary and the ordinary, and the central question is not only which, but when."

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Frederique Laubepin

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