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Column: What makes us happy?

There is lots of science that tells us that experiences make us happier than possessions. But which experiences make us the happiest? Which experiences should we seek out if we want to be happy?

A study titled "Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences" by two marketing professors set out first to separate experiences into those two broad categories: extraordinary (uncommon and infrequent), such as the birth of a child or a trip to Hawaii; and ordinary (common and frequent), such as feeling the sun on your face on a summer morning or sharing pizza and a movie with the kids.

Second, Amit Bhattacharjee of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and Cassie Mogilner of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania looked for the role of age in the happiness these experiences give us.

They found that younger people, who view the future as infinite and who are collecting experiences to help define who they are, gain more happiness from extraordinary experiences, such as taking pictures from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

As people age, the researchers found, and begin to view their remaining time as limited, they get just as much happiness from the ordinary experiences that are part of their daily lives — a bike ride, a frappachino on a hot day.

Their report, scheduled to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, helps answer the question, how do we spend our time and money to maximize our happiness? Should we choose that trip to Ireland or the Viking river cruise? Or might we be just as happy getting together with old friends at a neighborhood restaurant and lingering too long over wine?

The answer depends on where you are in life. The fearless young need extraordinary experiences to shape their lives and improve their decisionmaking. But those of us who are older now have permission to scale back the bucket list, knowing that we can be just as happy with a weekend at a bed and breakfast as we might be zip-lining through a tropical jungle.

"While younger people tend to define happiness in terms of excitement, enthusiasm and high stakes of arousal, older people define happiness in terms of calm, peacefulness and low states of arousal," the authors wrote.

We still love thrills as we age, the researchers found. Extraordinary experiences give young and old almost the same amount of pleasure. But happiness from ordinary experiences increased as people got older.

Another interesting finding? Our happiness does not depend on having a partner or being in a group for any of these experiences — whether we are young or old. I would have guessed that it did, that a shared experience would make me happier. But I recognize that I am equally content sipping coffee on my deck on a summer morning whether I am alone or with friends.

The study was not really intended to help you and I understand better what makes us happy and, if we are older, to give us permission to savor the small moments. It is actually aimed at the sellers of experiential products.

But it put me in mind of Roger Angell's recent essay in the New Yorker magazine, in which he has written lyrically about sports and other things for a generation. (Read it at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-rogerangell.)

He is 93 now, and he writes about the shrinking of his world and about death, a visitor he would not be surprised to see at his door on any day.

It is sad and funny and touching and profound. He echoes the findings of this study, but when he writes about the little happinesses of his life, you can hear the music in his words.

"We've outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows."

© 2014 Baltimore Sun

Column: What makes us happy? 02/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 3:24pm]

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