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The Meaning of Happiness Changes Over Your Lifetime

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HAPPINESS
Olivia Bell Photography via Getty Images

One lovely afternoon, I began chatting to my grandpa. I was completely unaware he was about to say something that would change my view of happiness forever.

In the middle of our conversation, I felt a lull so I pulled out the classic question. "If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be?" I couldn't wait to talk about my long list of dead presidents, dead Beatles, dead scientists, and a really cute living movie star. But I was also really eager to hear what he'd say.

Then he simply answered, "My wife."

I immediately assured him it's not necessary for him to answer like that. We all knew he loves his wife, who was currently over in the other room playing cards and whom he eats dinner with every night.

He still insisted, "My wife. I'd have a nice dinner with my wife."

"Alright," I said, maybe a little too snappy, "Someone other than your wife."

"Well okay, it would be my good friend and neighbor, Bill," He replied.

The I became a little angry and pleaded, "Come on, you wouldn't pick like John Lennon or Abraham Lincoln or FDR? He was alive when you were, right?"

"No. I'd pick Bill."

I was just about to explain the point of the game again when it hit me. He already understood the game, and he was not trying to mess with me. What would make him most happy would be to have the same meal he has everyday, with the woman he's been married to for 50 years.

Happiness to him was ordinary.

Over the past years, the interest in happiness has exploded. Everyone seems to want to be happy, read about how to be happy, or listen to Pharrells' hit song, "Happy." In response, researchers and gurus have been trying to feed everyone's interest in happiness by pumping out new studies and New York Times bestsellers.

However, there's been one factor that's been missing in all this happiness discussion and in retrospect, it seems ridiculously obvious. That factor is age. As the story of my grandfather vividly displays, at different ages, we are interested in very different kinds of happiness.

Two young psychologists have recently stepped onto the scene and started to explain how happiness varies over the lifetime. Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth University and Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania find that the young find happiness and self-definition through extraordinary experiences like meeting a celebrity. In contrast, older adults find happiness and self-definition through everyday experiences, like dinner with a best friend or wife.

To fully illustrate this concept, consider any family vacation. Think about how difficult it always is to make both the children and parents happy. This is because happiness means something different to younger and older members of the family.

The young crave the extraordinary. They long to bungee jump off a cliff, find a celebrity, and post a stylized Instagram photo that exaggerates the extraordinariness of the moment. Youth culture embraces the concept the of Yolo -- "You Only Live Once" -- which is just a modern (and arguably more annoying) way to say "carpe diem," which is just a Latin way to say "seize the day." Yolo is not something new; it's just a rebranding of the youth mindset that's always been around.

In contrast, older people tend to find happiness and define themselves in the ordinary experiences that comprise daily life. So, on vacation, parents often just want to spend time as a family. They want to have a nice family dinner and play card games.

What's important about Bhattacharjee and Mogilner's happiness hypothesis is that it is a psychological hypothesis rather than a cultural hypothesis. The scientists argue that with fewer days left in their lives, people start to focus on daily experiences and close-knit friendships. And that's exactly what the researchers find through a controlled experiment. When they took 20-somethings and made them feel as if their brains would stop optimally functioning at age 40 (as opposed to age 80), the 20-somethings felt like they had less time left and were more interested in everyday happiness activities. They end up acting more like older people.

It's worth noting that these findings greatly contrast the "Bucket List" hypothesis, the idea that as people feel their days are running out, they are motivated to do the extraordinary. For instance, in the film The Bucket List, two aging men strive to have the most extraordinary experiences possible. Though these cases do exist in society, they may be the exception. In general the rule is that as people feel like they are aging, they turn away from the extraordinary and, like my grandfather, focus on the everyday.

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So if happiness is as important a goal in life as American culture makes it seem, we need to understand how age affects it. Only then can we know how to better treat our families, communities, and citizens of all ages. Only then will we all be happy, even if happy will mean different things to different people at different stages of their lives.

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If you like this this article you may also like Troy Campbell's articles: Ask People About What They Love and How People Choose Their Emotions like Spock.

Thanks to my "Collin" for lending me his story for this article and for spending so much time talking to me about my wonderful grandfather's love for my grandmother.