The Incredible Lightness of Being Older: Happiness in the Elderly

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A growing shift has made itself apparent in our time: happiness is more strongly associated with meaningful experiences than the accumulation of possessions. The iconic American Dream to own a home, have 2.5 children, a nice car, and a sizeable nest egg appeals for inherent reasons. Yet researchers led by Cassie Mogilner of Wharton have concluded that experiences help determine happiness, and age plays a large role in which experiences bring the most happiness. For the older population, the less extraordinary the experience, the more meaningful. In other words, older people experience happiness in small, everyday pleasures rather than outsized adventures.

The Moderating Role of Age in Ordinary or Extraordinary Experiences 

In one study conducted by Mogilner and her team, a sample of 221 individuals between the ages of 17 and 79 were recruited to participate. They were randomly split into two groups: the ordinary and the extraordinary (the labels had nothing to do with the people’s lives or accomplishments). The extraordinary group participants were asked to recall a recent extraordinary event in their lives that made them feel happy. This event had to be outside of the realm of their usual day-to-day experiences. The ordinary group was asked to recall a recent ordinary event in their life that made them feel happy, one that was commonplace and recurrent within the framework of their day-to-day lives. All participants were asked to rate the level of happiness each event brought them.

Ordinary experiences brought about greater happiness in older participants than in younger ones.

At first glance, it appeared that the more extraordinary the experiences, the greater the happiness, but then researchers highlighted the role that age played. They found that the older the participants, the more the difference in happiness between ordinary and extraordinary dwindled. Ordinary experiences brought about greater happiness in older participants than in younger ones. Researchers concluded that although happiness from extraordinary experiences was the same for all age groups studied, happiness with mundane experiences increased as people got older.

Definitions of Happiness Changes as We Age 

If ordinary experiences bring a greater level of satisfaction to older lives, the question arose as to whether a 25-year-old’s happiness carries the same internal effect as the happiness of an 85-year-old. This concept of relative happiness led researchers to delve even further into the relative nature of time. They began conducting studies across multiple platforms, including personal blogs to further define happiness around the factor of how much perceived time people had left on earth.

When people perceived they had less time left, they found greater happiness in ordinary experiences than younger individuals who perceived they had significant amounts of time ahead of them and who found greater happiness in the extraordinary.

Along the same lines of defining happiness further was the type of happiness that was felt; calm or excited. Those in the younger age bracket reported more excitement to their happiness while the older age bracket, those over age 40, reported a calmer happiness. The older a person was, the less likely they were to define their happiness in terms of excitement, and the more likely they were to define it as a calm contentment. Thus, a 25-year-old’s expression of happiness probably doesn’t mean the same as the expression of happiness from an 85-year-old.

Time Carries More Weight than Money 

Cassie Mogilner was curious about how influential money was over a person’s relative perception of time left to live and money. After all, the burden of having enough money while facing a failing Social Security Administration, higher inflation, and higher health care costs is very much on the minds of many older people. In one of her innovative studies involving a café, Mogilner observed individuals as they either went about socializing or completing tasks related to work after having participants complete a small word unscramble survey that either highlighted work- or time-related words. Upon leaving the café, subjects of the experiment were surveyed again on how happy they felt.

Mogilner reported that those who were led to think about time on their way into the café connected more with others and left happier than those who were led by the word unscramble exercise to think about money.

The less amount of time we perceive we have, the less important money becomes and the greater the contentment we find in ordinary experiences. Older people begin to seek out those experiences that bring them contentment. They have learned that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Caregivers do well to note that the greatest gift someone can give a senior is often time spent together in a seemingly ordinary way. A simple meal together or a caring phone call may bring waves of inner contentment to a senior who has learned to savor the simple things in life and to allow the ordinary to morph into extraordinary contentment.

 

Sources

Mogilner, Cassie, and Bhattacharjee, Amit. (June 2014). Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, Inc., 41(1): 1- 17. Available at http://www.ejcr.org/Curations-PDFs/Curations11/Curations11-4.pdf. Last Visited March 24, 2016.

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania newsletter. Knowledge at Wharton. (November,12, 2014). Why Time – Not Money – Is the Key to Happiness. Transcript of a conversation with Cassie Mogilner, professor of marketing at Wharton. Available at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/why-time-not-money-is-the-key-to-happiness/. Last Visited March 17, 2016.