What Makes You Happy? It Depends on How Old You (Think) You Are

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One Monday morning two years ago, Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner and then-Wharton PhD candidate Amit Bhattacharjee were discussing what they did during the past weekend. Mogilner talked about her fabulous and productive weekend getting things done around the house and enjoying a Sunday brunch with her husband. Bhattacharjee then described his weekend, one filled with excitement and travel.

“This discussion led us to the question of how different experiences make us happy, and was it the extraordinary or ordinary experiences that contributed more to our happiness,” says Mogilner. Mogilner’s and Bhattacharjee’s forthcoming research paper on the topic is titled, “Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences.”

The researchers soon found that age — particularly the contrasts between people hovering above or below the mid-30s mark — played a key role in what made individuals happy. “[We] refined our initial research question to examine not just which type of experience is associated with greater happiness, but to further examine when each type of experience is more closely tied to happiness,” the paper states.

The influence of age, Mogilner adds, made the research “more nuanced and interesting and gave us another layer of insight into when people experience happiness.”

After conducting eight different studies looking at a variety of influences and experiences, Mogilner and Bhattacharjee conclude that “younger people who view their future as extensive gain more happiness from extraordinary experiences.” As people get older, and more aware that their time on earth is finite, ordinary experiences become increasingly associated with happiness, and even begin to catch up to the extraordinary in the amount of joy and contentment they produce.

“Recent research shows that well-being is tied to Facebook, and people tend to post things to make them feel good about themselves.” –Amit Bhattacharjee

The team defines ordinary experiences as “those that are common, frequent and within the realm of everyday life,” such as sharing a meal with family or friends or successfully reorganizing a messy closet. Extraordinary experiences, on the other hand, are defined as being “uncommon, infrequent and going beyond the realm of everyday life” — a trip around the world, for example, or flying trapeze classes. The researchers found that overall, non-romantic relationships and indulging in treats were central to many ordinary experiences, whereas extraordinary experiences typically involved life milestones, travel and cultural endeavors.

In their initial study, Mogilner and Bhattacharjee simply asked participants to identify either a recent extraordinary or ordinary event that made them happy, and then had them rate the level of that happiness. In the second study, a separate pool of participants looked at the experiences identified by the first group and rated how happy that experience would make them. The researchers followed up these two studies with a third to gauge how much the happiness generated by ordinary and extraordinary experiences was driven by a need to spend time with others.

The second study found that “imagining the happiness one would enjoy from others’ ordinary and extraordinary experiences produced the same pattern of results found amongst those reporting the happiness they actually experienced,” the researchers write. The third study also made clear that the social nature or people involved in ordinary and extraordinary experiences did not affect the levels of happiness derived from them.

Time Left on Earth

In the second series of studies, the researchers delved further into the role of age. Instead of focusing on people’s actual age, however, participants were asked about their perceived amount of time left in life. Mogilner and Bhattacharjee also wanted to use a “natural data source” rather than ask people to self-select their own experiences, so they turned to Facebook.

“Recent research shows that well-being is tied to Facebook, and people tend to post things to make them feel good about themselves,” says Bhattacharjee, who is now a visiting assistant professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “It’s a nice way to gain external validation for the effects we found in the laboratory.”

“Irrespective of how old you are, experiences that are self-defining make you happy. But as you get older, there is a real shift in what experiences you use to define yourself.” –Cassie Mogilner

For the Facebook study, participants were asked to describe their latest status update and label it as an extraordinary or an ordinary experience. Participants were then asked about how much time they felt they had left in their lives. In the next phase of the series, the researchers asked students of similar age to describe a happy experience and also to gauge how much time they had left. The final phase allowed the researchers to test their theory in the realm of product marketing by having participants look at advertisements after being led to perceive their remaining time left in life as limited or extensive.

The results of all three studies were in line with Mogilner’s and Bhattacharjee’s hypothesis: Participants who felt as if they had more time left on earth were more likely to derive greater levels of happiness from extraordinary experiences, while those who thought they had less time ranked ordinary and extraordinary events equally. “We were thinking less in terms of age and more in terms of ending,” Bhattacharjee says. “You take the day-to-day stuff for granted when you have plenty of days left for experiences.”

In the final phase of the research, Mogilner and Bhattacharjee sought the emotional factors responsible for the influence of age on the level of happiness attributed to different types of experiences. That phase involved asking participants to describe either an ordinary or an extraordinary experience and then rate how much certain adjectives – including high-risk, private and self-defining — described the event. While extraordinary experiences were viewed as self-defining by people of all ages, “ordinary experiences were viewed as more self-defining by older participants than younger ones, becoming increasingly self-defining with age,” the researchers write.

Attracting a Younger Demographic

To Mogilner, the role of self-definition was one of the most surprising results of the study. “Irrespective of how old you are, experiences that are self-defining make you happy. But as you get older, there is a real shift in what experiences you use to define yourself,” she notes.

“Practitioners have this notion that extraordinary experiences are inherently better than ordinary ones, and the more they convert ordinary to extraordinary, the more they will sell. But it really depends on the brand and the goal of that brand.” –Amit Bhattacharjee

Mogilner and Bhattacharjee agree that the research has potential real-world applications from marketers looking at how to position a product. As an example, the researchers point to the way Coca-Cola portrays drinking regular Coke as an “ordinary” experience by infusing ads with classic scenes of people spending time together. On the other hand, marketing for Diet Coke is more focused on pursuing the extraordinary through pop stars and incredible personal feats — and, as a result, attracting a younger demographic.

“Practitioners have this notion that extraordinary experiences are inherently better than ordinary ones, and the more they convert ordinary to extraordinary, the more they will sell,” Bhattacharjee says. “But it really depends on the brand and the goal of that brand. A lot of brands do better at connecting with us on an everyday basis.”

The researchers write that further study is needed “to investigate other dimensions of experience as well as multiple dimensions of well-being.” An important next step, Bhattacharjee suggests, would be to look at unhappy experiences and how meaningful they can be to an individual’s life.

“Even amidst the dizzying, infinite array of possible experiences, our findings suggest that there is underlying order,” the researchers write. “A happy life includes both the extraordinary and the ordinary, and the central question is not only which, but when.”

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