The definition of happiness evolves over a lifetime

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Could your definition of happiness as a 21 year-old possibly be the same at 80 or 90? It would be strange if it were. I began mulling this idea over when I stumbled across a new study: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences.

My other happiness explorations covered studies with big, contributing factors: Scientific, economic and cultural phenomena. On a more tangible level, as we age, happiness is continuously redefined. This view is the basis for the study released this year.

The young often find happiness in extremes – those rushes of adrenaline from extreme sports or social media popularity. By contrast, my nonagenarian mother appears quite happy at family gatherings saying the important thing is that “we’re together.”

If we’re lucky, there’s a long continuum as we move through youth to old age. According to the study, both young and old appreciate extraordinary happiness (defined as uncommon and infrequent), but older people define extraordinary happiness in more ordinary (common and frequent) circumstances: A gathering of family, an outing with grand children, a special moment with their spouse or partner.

“While extraordinary experiences are self-defining throughout life, ordinary experiences become more self-defining as people age, thus contributing to happiness as much as extraordinary experiences later in life.”

> Study: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences / 2014

Media feeds the quest

With easy access to online information, the quest for happiness, or the thinking that we must undergo a quest for happiness, has exploded. We’re force fed to believe that we need to be young, attractive, smart, well-employed, well-connected, and coupled to be “happy” – and if we’re not achieving happiness by those means, well, we’ve failed.

I did a quick search on happiness books at Amazon.com and up popped 66,173 titles, including: 10% Happier, Authentic Happiness, Happier, Happier Now!, Happiness is a Choice, Real Happiness, Stumbling On Happiness, The Art of Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Hypothesis, The Happiness Makeover, The Happiness Project, The Happiness Solution.

There’s a study, a book, a podcast or a TEDTalk rolled out daily to meet every need or neurosis at every age. Everyone wants to be consistently happy, to read about how to be happy, or to sing about being happy (note the explosive success of Pharrell’s hit “Happy.”) Can contentment ever be achieved when the stress of the quest outweighs acknowledging life experiences? It’s exhausting.

Seeking happiness is ageless

The good news, regardless of age, is that seeking happiness rarely goes away. For many, experiential happiness overtakes material acquisition. The connections to family and friends become more important and more meaningful. We take pleasure in the smaller, day-to-day events of living rather than waiting for the big rush to prove we’re alive. Life experiences, as they relate to happiness, become relative depending on age.

“A happy life includes both the extraordinary and the ordinary, and the central question is not only which, but when.”

> Study: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences / 2014

Go out for a walk, reconnect with an old friend, take a new route home, go to your local library or explore some new music. Because in the end, given all the reference materials available, each of us is responsible for living our own version of happiness. And it’s never too late to redefine it.

Animation: © 2014 Janet Giampietro

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