“Frequent small pleasures are better than a few big ones.”
Common sense would suggest that it’s better to have a lot of intense moments of extreme happiness rather than fewer, but researchers have found that this isn’t the case. In fact, it seems that frequent small pleasures and relatively few negative experiences may be both necessary and sufficient to produce happiness.
In three separate studies, investigators assessed the level of happiness of subjects, each study using a different happiness scale, and then tracked the mood of the subjects at random times throughout the day and at the end of each day over a period of six to eight weeks by paging them to record their moods in a notebook.
What they found was that the self-reported frequency of happy moods reported by the subjects was more highly correlated to the happiness assessments than the intensity of their happiness. Individuals who reported feeling happy over 80% of the time but who had very few or no highly intense moments of happiness were all determined to be very happy by the assessments scores. Individuals who reported feeling less than happy more than 50% of the time were all assessed to be unhappy – even though they reported relatively more moments of very high positive happiness.
In fact, all of the subjects from the three studies who reported that they frequently felt happy scored highly on every measure of assessed happiness, independent of the intensity of their happy moods. Conversely, every subject who reported feeling less than happy most of the time scored as unhappy on every one of the assessments. This suggests that being in a happy mood most of the time is necessary to being happy. Although the data was consistent with it, there wasn’t enough of it at the extremes to solidly conclude that a happy mood most of the time is sufficient (i.e., all that is needed) to be happy.
Why don’t intense positive experiences make a person happy?
One reason is probably because they are very rare. For example, in the studies mentioned above, an extremely happy mood was reported on only 2.6% of the subject-days in the study. On the other hand, the majority of the subjects reported less intense but positive moods most of the time.
But there seem to be costs associated with intense feelings of happiness. Subjects who reported experiencing intense positive moods were also the most likely to report experiencing intense negative moods. Anyone who has been to a sporting event and observed hardcore fans has witnessed this firsthand. There’s mass ecstasy when the home team scores, and howls of unhappiness when the other team gets away with a foul. To care intensely about the outcome of something you can’t control is setting yourself up for these ups and downs.
Theorists have produced models to explain why extremely intense happy moods are rare. In one model, extremely positive events must either be something new and novel or something negative that you became adjusted to suddenly goes away. Other models predict why intense ups and downs go together. For example, there’s one model which assumes all events are judged in relation to other events. So extremely good events are judged more positive if extremely bad events have occurred recently, and vice versa. This explains why lottery winners are less happy when small positive everyday events occurred thereafter. Winning the lottery raises the bar, so to speak. It may also explain why some people enjoy novels featuring dystopian worlds – it lowers the bar so their normal lives seem more happy by comparison.
The results of this study suggest that people who are successful at maintaining a low level positive mood will be happy. In other words, we should increase the frequency of low level happy experiences and decrease any unhappy experiences. Relatively intense happy experiences aren’t likely to increase our long-term happiness much and might actually be detrimental.
A large part of the population behaves as if how they spend their time and money in everyday moments is not terribly important but pursuing intense moments of happiness is. This is apparently the exact opposite of the optimal strategy. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, everyday moments are the stuff life is made of.