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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

Sep 2014


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month

To view all of Jeanne's articles visit the Interest Index.

The Meaning of Happiness Changes Over Your Lifetime

When Thomas Jefferson declared “the pursuit of Happiness” an inalienable right in his draft of the American Declaration of Independence, he probably did not expect it to one day become an academic discipline.

Scholars in the emerging field of happiness studies have found that experiences tend to make people happier than possessions. Two professors, Amil Bhattacharjee and Cassie Mogilner, set up a study to figure out what experiences made people the most happy and why. What the pair found again and again was that the older people get, the more content they were with ordinary experiences. In fact, the potential to be content with everyday pursuits eventually grows equal to exotic trips or pricey restaurant meals.

Older People Relish the Ordinary

Professor Bhattacharjee’s own parents provided him with a case study. When his younger brother started college, the two siblings sent their parents restaurant gift cards and theatre tickets so they could enjoy their freedom. “They just had zero interest,” he told the New York Times. “They really relish the ordinary.”

He realised that their concept of what was valuable was different than what consumer society told him.

His father, Arun Bhattacharjee, 73, had been retired for several years and spends his days reading the newspaper and books and taking strolls near his home in Audubon, Pennsylvania. “I walk in the neighborhood around the block a few times,” he said. “Everybody knows me. Rain or shine.”

His wife, Ratna, 63, still works as an engineer, and they visit her mother in India once a year. The family of four vacationed in Las Vegas recently. “I have not lost interest in those kinds of things,” Arun Bhattacharjee said. “But I don’t need that sort of thing all of the time to give me pleasure.”

The Young Crave the Extraordinary

Amongst all the studies and bestsellers about happiness, Bhattacharjee and Mogilner are the first to explain how happiness varies over your lifetime. The young crave the extraordinary. They long to bungee jump off a cliff or mingle with celebrities. In contrast, older adults find happiness through everyday experiences like dinner with a best friend or a satisfying game of cards.

It’s worth noting that these findings greatly contradict the “Bucket List” hypotheses, the idea that as people feel their days are running out, they are motivated to do the extraordinary. In the film The Bucket List, two aging men strive to have the most extraordinary experiences possible, including a free-fall from an airplane. Bucket Listers are the exception.

Older People Are Not Set In Their Ways

Older people are not set in their ways, nor should they want to be. I found out last year on an excursion to Costa Rica that I could still learn new skills. I learned to snorkel in these clear blue coastal waters, finding much pleasure and happiness in floating and viewing the spectacular sea life beneath me. I will not attempt scuba diving, though. That is a depth too far.

Still, there is always much comfort in knowing that everyday things can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. The profound pleasure of a day in the local library, leafing through the variety of newspapers and magazines on offer or sampling the pages of the newest fiction and non-fiction.

We can thank these two academics for helping us to confirm that happiness can be where you least expect it.

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