Turns Out It Doesn't Take Much to Make Us Happy
We go out for dinner on Sunday nights. I usually have a salad and my husband, a burger. We always go to the same restaurant. The servers know us there and have my iced tea and his water, waiting, on our favorite table.
We sit and talk – about our son, our wobbly finances, our crazy families. Pretty ordinary night. But it makes me happy. I lopk forward to it all week.
Now a new study is finding that for some people, happiness can be that simple.
According to a recent story in The New York Times, “What we do, it seems, has more potential for lasting satisfaction and memory-making than what we have.” Ron Lieber writes that, if you can cover basic expenses, pursuing inexpensive, everyday things that bring comfort and satisfaction can lead to happiness equal to jetting about on international trips in your 70s and 80s.
Well, we're not that old but it seems to be holding true for us. I'm going back to work next week but I haven't held a job – other than my freelance writing – in 13 years. This is really good news for us, because, the very same day I was offered the job, my husband, a dentist, lost his part-time job at a clinic (mainly because he wasn't finding enough cavities and crowns). So finances are a little tenuous for us right now, and have been, for some time, even though he still has his practice in Queens.
Anyway, Lieber goes on to say that scholars in the field have already established that experiences tend to make people happier than possessions. Not just big ones, like weddings and births and baptisms and (this spring) bar mitzvahs (same child), but the little ones, too.
What we do, it seems, has more potential for lasting satisfaction and memory-making than what we have. Even though, I admit, I'm looking forward to what it will buy me, I'm also excited about the satisfaction and contentment being employed again in a creative, supportive environment will bring.
Apparently, extraordinary experiences bring great joy throughout life. But what researchers found again and again was that the older people got, the more happiness ordinary experiences brought. In fact, the happiness-making potential of everyday pursuits eventually grows equal to that of ones that are rarer.
Is it because we have less extraordinary experiences as we age? I doubt it. Lieber says maybe it's because we know ourselves better – we don't have to go sky-diving or feed fish to great whites while swimming beside them (people actually do this) to prove to ourselves we're hip, or, at least, way cooler than we were in high school – and ordinary things can deliver that same level of happiness.
Here's the real kicker: it doesn’t hurt, either, that you may appreciate the ordinary much more once you’re more aware of the decreasing number of years you have left to enjoy it. But that can happen when you're younger too. Just as I left my 40s, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, then again, two years later. I was fortunate, mine hadn't spread. But it can't help making you realize you're going to die someday, that your days here on earth are not infinite.
I was recently asked in another job interview what I saw myself doing five years out. Living, I wanted to say. But what I said instead was that I don't think five years ahead anymore. I live each day as it comes. Probably why I didn't get that job!
But it's true. We only have this day. So now I try to live this, and it pretty much works. Don't have what you want. Want what you have. I do.