Trying To Achieve Happiness? Turns Out, How You Attain It Depends On Your Age

A new study suggests that what makes us happy shifts as we age. Now marketers are using this information to reach their target demographic.

What would you prefer: having a great conversation with your son, or taking pictures from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris?

Researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania sought to answer the question: Should we pursue extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, or is it the everyday experiences that provide the greatest enjoyment? The answer, it turns out, may depend on your age.

"We examine how age—and the perceived amount of time left in life—impacts the happiness people enjoy from both extraordinary and ordinary life experiences," the authors, Amit Bhattacharjee, visiting business professor at Dartmouth College, and Cassie Mogilner, marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tell the Journal of Consumer Research.

THE PARAMETERS

Researchers conducted eight studies over a three-year period asking participants between 18 and 87 years old to recall, plan, or imagine happy experiences. In one study, 221 participants were asked to recall a recent experience that was either extraordinary or ordinary. Ordinary was defined as common or frequent, such as watching a movie with a spouse or enjoying a cup of coffee, while extraordinary meant uncommon or infrequent, like taking an exotic vacation or getting married. Respondents were then asked to evaluate how the experience contributed to their overall happiness on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much).

KEY FINDINGS

The study revealed that while both younger and older participants experienced similar levels of happiness with extraordinary experiences, older participants derived greater happiness from ordinary experiences. These findings were consistent across the board.

"It seems that young people actively looking to define themselves find it particularly rewarding to accumulate extraordinary experiences that mark their progression through life milestones and that help them build an experiential CV," the authors noted.

They believe that once people grow older and have established a better sense of who they are, the experiences they view as self-defining are just as likely to include routine events that reveal how they like to spend their time. In other words, while you continue to define yourself through experiences throughout your lifetime, you derive more pleasure from the ordinary experiences as you age.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR BUSINESS

The study notes the increased attention by brand managers on experiential marketing as providing an experience and forging deeper connections with consumers. While marketers tend to frame the ordinary experiences as extraordinary in order to capitalize on deeper connections, the study suggests that association with the ordinary isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In a follow-up study, researchers asked 162 adults to rate logos of the top 30 most valuable brands on (1) whether it was an everyday or extraordinary experience, (2) how happy it made them, and (3) their personal connection with the brand. Coke, Microsoft, McDonald's, Pepsi, and GE were ranked as ordinary experiences, while Disney, BMW, Mercedes, Nike, and LV were associated with extraordinary experiences. (Google and Apple were rated top 5 for both experience types and, for that reason, were removed from the study.)

While respondents reported greater happiness from "extraordinary" brands, they felt a deeper connection to the "ordinary" brands. The study authors suggest brands "must draw consumers’ attention to the type of experience and dimension of connection that is appropriate for their target segment."

Hat tip: Journal of Consumer Research

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