Research Summaries: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences
The big ideas:
- It is well established that experiential purchases (like going on a vacation) lead to greater happiness than material purchases (like buying a car). However, not much is known about which types of experiences lead to greater happiness and for whom.
- A dimension on which experiences reliably differ are whether they are ordinary, meaning common and frequent, or extraordinary, meaning infrequent and rare. For e.g., sipping a cup of coffee, may be an ordinary experience, while scuba diving on an an exotic vacation may be an extraordinary experience. Both types of experiences have the potential to increase happiness.
- A dimension on which people differ is their perceived time left, that is correlated with their chronological age. A young person believes that they have a lot of life ahead of them and are future oriented, while an older person believes that time is limited and its more prudent to focus on the here and now. The perceived time left can be manipulated in the laboratory (as the authors do in one of the studies) or it may vary naturally, for example a person suffering from cancer may have a limited perceived time left.
- The authors hypothesized that experiences lead to happiness, because they are in a a way processes used by people to define their self, and having a healthy and cherished self-concept leads to happiness and well-being. Extraordinary experiences are a sort of experiential CV of a person that highlight that their experiential (and emotional) high points. Ordinary experiences are a sort of commonplace activities that define who you are and how you live your life.
- They also hypothesized that (psychologically) young people should be more obsessed with building their experiential CV and thus derive more happiness from extraordinary experiences as compared to ordinary experiences; (psychologically) older people, on the other hand, should derive greater happiness from ordinary experiences as compared to younger people, as they have a stable sense of self and self-concordant ordinary activities.
- What they found was that indeed, for younger people, extraordinary experiences are associated with greater happiness as compared to ordinary experiences. For older people, however, both extraordinary experiences and ordinary experiences carry the same happiness dividend, which is of the same magnitude as that received by younger people undergoing extraordinary experiences. Thus, while extraordinary experiences are associated with high levels of happiness throughout the age span, ordinary experiences start small and peak at life’s end.
- This has important implications for brands targeting experiential products to consumers. Brands targeted at youth are more likely to succeed if they associate themselves with extraordinary experiences; however brands targeted at older people can succeed more by associating themselves with everyday ordinary experiences.
- Beyond brands, this highlights which sort of experiences may be more crucial to have at different stages of life for optimizing happiness. If you are older perhaps savoring is the way to go. If you are younger perhaps more risk-taking, adventurous and seize-the-day sort of activities are to be prioritized.
- This can also be related to my last research summary on costs and benefits of consuming. The extraordinary and ordinary experiences are related to what Mihaly called experiential needs- it is instructive to note that they arise from a self-definition process and are likely just another form of either satisfying the need for self-esteem or self-actualization: that is this is who I am and these are experiences that validate it.
- A few notes about methodology. The authors performed eight studies in total. In most of them, they asked participants to recall a recent extraordinary or ordinary experience (in one study they used the last Facebook status update ), and then asked the participants to rate the experience on different dimensions like amount of happiness felt etc. The methodology is not without its own challenges and limitations and as the results are mostly correlational, should be interpreted with caution.
So what is the final takeaway? Prioritize experiences over material purchases, and even among them prioritize rare experiences when young and more common everyday experiences when old. If your interest has been piqued, check the original article here.
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