Ordinary happiness

In today’s society we are pretty fond of peak experiences. In Dead Poet’s Society (a wonderful film), the Robin Williams character exhorts his young charges to make their lives “extraordinary”. Everyone these days is encouraged to have a “bucket list”: a catalogue of experiences they wish to have before they die. Without meaning to, this emphasis on the extraordinary is implicitly devaluing the ordinary and according to a new study that may actually be undermining our happiness.

For the study, subjects were organised into groups of four. One of the four was allocated to watch a highly rated “4 star” video while the other three watched a lower rated “2 star” video. Each subject was aware of the video that the other subjects had been asked to watch. Afterwards, the subjects participated in a five-minute conversation.

What happened was that those who had the peak experience of watching the wonderful video felt excluded during the discussion period and that they felt worse because they did not expect this exclusion.

In a second study, subjects were asked how they would feel if they were the person in the study who had the extraordinary experience. These subjects wrongly assumed that the person watching the better film would feel happier than the others.

The researchers say the mistake in expectation of what an extraordinary experience will bring arises from the fact that the extraordinary experience itself separates the person who has had it. They make the point that social interaction has its basis in similarities and too many extraordinary experiences may just leave you feeling different and alone. As the researchers note, if an experience or set of experiences turns you into someone who has nothing in common with others then the cost may outweigh the benefits and you won’t be happy in the long run.

This is not to decry achievement or striving but it does emphasise that happiness is based in sharing and connection to others. Peak or extraordinary experiences can enrich you as a person but if they diminish your commonality they will impoverish you as well. By all means make your life extraordinary but, within that, embrace ordinariness as well.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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