Feb. 23, 2014 -- What does it take to make us happy? It depends on how old we are.
New research, involving more than 1,700 participants of all ages across the entire continent, reveals that different experiences make us happy as we get older.
For the young, it's falling in love, getting that first car, or watching the tiny fingers of a first child open to a new world. It's the extraordinary events that make us happy during those exploratory years.
Those life-shaping experiences still help, no matter how old we get, but there is one big difference. Seniors have learned the value of just stopping and smelling the roses. It's the ordinary pleasures that loom large.
"We were looking for what makes people happy, and then we saw this interesting effect of age," psychologist Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania said in a telephone interview.
Mogilner and Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth College disclosed their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
"Although happiness from extraordinary experiences does not change over one's lifespan, ordinary experiences elicit greater happiness as people get older and their remaining time becomes limited," they conclude in their study.
The researchers tackled a seemingly simple question: What is happiness?
It's far from simple, however. Scientists can't even decide on a precise definition of the word, because happiness is so personal and subject to so many variables that it virtually defies being defined.
So Mogilner and Brattacharjee didn't try to define it. They let the unusually large sample of participants define it in their own way. And there was a surprisingly high agreement over what kind of events made them the happiest.
"While younger people tend to define happiness in terms of excitement, enthusiasm, and high states of arousal, older people define happiness in terms of calm, peacefulness, and low states of arousal," the study notes.
Participants ranged in age from 18 to the early 80s.
"To first examine which type of experience makes people happiest, we simply asked them," the study notes.
Here are a few examples that were given the most frequently by the participants, although specifics varied:
Extraordinary experiences: Giving birth to a child; vacationing in Hawaii; fishing in Alaska; getting married; taking pictures from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Ordinary experiences: Spending time with spouse, watching a movie; enjoying a bright and sunny day; watching plants poking through the garden soil in early spring; or riding a bike, taking a shower, walking a dog.
But why should ordinary experiences matter more as we get older? The researchers think it's because young people are looking toward the future, perhaps still trying to define themselves, and the more extraordinary experiences seem more self-defining. Older persons place more value on simple pleasures.
Getting old isn't for sissies, as the old saying goes, and any senior will tell you that the bones get creaky, it takes longer to complete simple tasks, there are too many pills in the medicine chest to take care of too many physical problems, and each year their money buys a little less.
But as we age we become more aware of who we are, and we have more time to enjoy the smaller, ordinary things that fill our days. And, as many studies have shown, we grow more aware of the fact that we aren't going to be around much longer.
Meanwhile, the experts can't agree on even some of the most fundamental issues.
Some studies find that we get happier as we get older while others contend that we don't. Some studies say money can't buy happiness, others say poverty can't either.
And many studies suggest that happiness is independent of the circumstances we find ourselves in. People are either happy or sad, depending on their personality and disposition.
Many psychologists have argued that we are born with a happiness "set point," and there isn't much we can do about it. The tragedies nearly all of us will encounter on our passage through the years -- loss of loved ones, crippling illness, frustrating jobs, and so on -- will set us back and depress us for a while, but in time we bounce back to our "set point."
Mogilner said she "buys" that concept, up to a point.
"I believe 50 percent of our happiness is based on our disposition and personality, and 10 percent is based upon life's circumstances that you don't have a lot of influence over, but there is 40 percent that is subject to thinking and behavior," she said. "Personality and disposition is a big part of the puzzle, but it is possible to adjust that."
In other words, it's hard to be happy when you are sick, but you may be able to adjust your lifestyle toward healthiness. It's depressing to be lonely, but it's not impossible to make friends. Of course, there's a lot of luck in life, both good and bad, and many sad events seem overwhelming. So maybe that "set point" is a safety net, helping us deal with personal tragedies.
But age does matter.
It's good advice to encourage young people to "seize the day." Perhaps as we get older we learn it's also good to savor the day.