What Makes Older People Happy
by Judith Graham
Every year, my husband and I wonder what kind of birthday gift to give his dad, now 86 years old. The newest gadget, which may be admired but almost surely will be put in a drawer? Something much more ordinary, like one of the cardigan sweaters he wears day in and day out?
We know very well what Mel would really enjoy: a weeklong visit with us and our children, with lots of time spent eating out in comfortable restaurants where he doesn’t have to strain to follow the conversation. But that is hard to engineer, since we all live far away.
A recent study helps me better why understand Mel so appreciates the same tried-and-true interactions that provoke a “not again” groan from my husband. The report, scheduled for publication this year in The Journal of Consumer Research, finds that the kinds of experiences that make people happy tend to change over time.
When we’re young and believe we have a long future ahead, the authors found, we prefer extraordinary experiences outside the realm of our day-to-day routines. But when we’re older and believe that our time is limited, we put more value on ordinary experiences, the stuff of which our daily lives are made.
Why? For young people trying to figure out who they want to become, extraordinary experiences help establish personal identities and are therefore prized, said Amit Bhattacharjee, the lead author of the study and a visiting assistant professor of marketing at Dartmouth College. As people become more settled, ordinary experiences become central to a sense of self and therefore more valued.
“It’s just what you would expect, this emphasis on savoring what you already have when your time starts to become limited,” said Peter Caprariello, an assistant professor of marketing at Stony Brook University who wasn’t involved in the research.
The study findings are drawn from eight experiments all revolving around the same theme. In one of them, Dr. Bhattacharjee and co-author Cassie Mogilner, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asked people aged 18 to 79 to recall an experience that was extraordinary or ordinary, and then asked them to rate their emotional responses. The conclusion: happiness derived from extraordinary experiences remained fairly constant, but pleasure from ordinary experiences increased as people got older.
Another experiment demonstrated that an individual’s perception of the future — whether it was open-ended or limited — was a critical factor in explaining the results. This is consistent with studies by Laura Carstensen, a professor of public policy and psychology at Stanford University, which posit that older adults’ sense that time is limited alters their emotional perspective, causing them to invest energy in what is most meaningful to them.
“I really like this paper because it ties together several important lines of research,” said Jim Bettman, a professor of business at Duke University. Previous research has shown that experiences make people happier than material possessions and that sharing experiences with others generates the most pleasure.
Adding a developmental perspective, Dr. Mogilner demonstrated in 2011 that the perception of happiness changes over time, with younger people feeling more rewarded by feeling excited and older adults getting a bigger boost of satisfaction from peace and calm.
One notable limitation in this new study is the relatively small sample of people in their 70s who participated in the experiments. “It would be nice to know how long the effect they’ve observed persists, but this can’t be established,” Dr. Caprariello said.
The implications? The things we enjoy aren’t necessarily what will make our older parents or relatives happy. The point isn’t to rip them from their routines and get them to try something new because you think that’s good for them. Like my father-in-law, they may much prefer to do the things they do ordinarily with us at their side.
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