New research out of Wharton says that, when it comes to happiness, what you're aiming for is a moving target.
Happiness seems simple, but chasing it, we all know, can be incredibly tricky. Several scholarly disciplines, including much of economics and positive psychology, are devoted to the question of how we can leverage what we have to be happier, and journalists of all stripes have devoted countless column inches to 'how to be happier' type articles.
With all that effort going into seeking happiness, wouldn’t it be helpful to know we’re all aiming for a moving target?
That’s the conclusion of research from Cassie Mogilner and Amit Bhattacharjee, both of the Wharton School. Their investigations were sparked by the everyday observation that what people talk about when it comes to enjoyable activities varies wildly. Was there an underlying pattern, Mogilner, a marketing professor, and Bhattacharjee, then a PhD candidate, wanted to know?
The Changing Nature of Happiness
To find out the pair designed a series of studies that both asked research participants to identify what sort of experiences resulted in what levels of happiness and also looked at Facebook posts, examining what activities people post at what age and how they report those activities affecting their mood. Sources of happiness, these studies revealed, do tend to change over time according to a consistent pattern.
"Younger people who view their future as extensive gain more happiness from extraordinary experiences," the researchers concluded, while as people age, it is more ordinary experiences that become associated with happiness.
What’s behind this shift from novel and exceptional activities bringing joy to more of a focus on everyday events like a dinner with family or friends? Further investigations reveals our changing preferences are tied to our sense of how much time we have left to enjoy life’s everyday pleasures. "You take the day-to-day stuff for granted when you have plenty of days left for experiences," Bhattacharjee told Knowledge@Wharton.
You first reaction may be: someone actually bothered to study this? In some ways the findings are incredibly intuitive -- just think how baffled you were around age 16 when your parents got excited about new kitchen appliances or a Sunday morning spent reading the newspaper. But what we know about others and what we expect for ourselves can be quite different, and making our changing sources of happiness explicit has practical benefits.
While the research has applications for marketers (highlight the ordinary to reach an older demographic and the extraordinary for younger people), it may also come as a comfort to bewildered folks in their mid-30s who are shocked by exactly how much they’re enjoying routine experiences that would have bored their younger selves to tears (not to speak too much from personal experience).
At least you now have scientific confirmation that you’re totally normal and some support for your intuition that you might want to change how you spend your entertainment dollars and your weekend evenings. So, go ahead and lounge around with that newspaper without stressing that you’re missing out on the thrills that brought you pleasure before.
Have you noticed your personal sources of happiness shifting over time?
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel