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What makes you happy changes as you age

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Extraordinary and ordinary life events make older people just as happy.

The pursuit of happiness is as old as time, but what makes us happy changes as we age, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The study took a look at the role of age and what kind of ordinary and extraordinary experiences made us happy over the course of time.

Given how much time, energy and money we invest in things that make us happy, it makes sense that what made us happy when we were younger may be different than that which makes us happy when we age, especially since growing older tends to heighten our awareness that time is running out.

Indeed, it is the “perceived amount of time left in life” that most affects what makes us happy from both extraordinary and ordinary life events, write study authors Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth College and Cassie Mogilner of Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers conducted a series of eight studies, which asked participants to remember, plan or imagine happy life experiences in an effort to illustrate the difference between ordinary and extraordinary events. Ordinary events were described as those that are common and frequent, whereas extraordinary experiences were uncommon and infrequent.

The researchers wanted to test their theory that younger participants would find that extraordinary experiences bring more happiness to their lives than ordinary experiences do.

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One of the eight studies involved more than 200 participants throughout the U.S. who were between the ages of 18 and 79. Researchers asked them to remember a recent extraordinary event that brought them happiness. Next, the research team placed the answers they received into 12 broad categories, such as life milestones, travel and spending time with other people.

Although participants of any age reported feeling happy from extraordinary events, the researchers found that older participants reported more happiness from ordinary experiences, compared with their younger counterparts.

These findings prompted some advice from the researchers to advertising agencies:

When promoting a particular brand product in an ad campaign that targets a certain age group, they recommend examining what kind of life events and milestones bring happiness to that particular age group, then incorporating it into the ad's message to develop a connection between the consumer and product.

The study authors explained that younger people are “actively seeking to define themselves”, which fuels their desire “to accumulate extraordinary experiences that mark their progression through life milestones.”

When they get older however, and have a more defined sense of themselves, the authors concluded that “the experiences they view as self-defining are just as likely to include the routine daily events that reveal how they like to spend their time."

SOURCE: Journal of Consumer Research, Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences, Amit Bhattacharjee, Cassie Mogilner (Published online Dec 16, 2013)