Happiness: Why It’s The Small Things (And How to Make Them Count)

Happiness: Why Its the Small Things (And How To Make Them Count)

I recently heard of a man, older and wiser than me, who does something quite wonderful.

At the end of each day he writes in a journal. Then he reads the entry he made one year ago, five years ago and ten years ago. He does this every night and has been doing it for most of his life.

He’s on to something. Let’s talk about why.

There’s an abundance of research that has found our accuracy in predicting how we will feel about things in the future isn’t that sharp. We are similarly fallible in estimating the future emotional impact of negative and positive events. We’re robbing ourselves of opportunities for happiness.

It’s likely that some of the things we experience today will seem so mundane as to not be worth capturing. According to new research however, this underestimates the potential happiness to be gained in the future when we ‘rediscover’ them. 

A meal, a passing conversation, where we were at 3pm on 20 August 2004 – rediscovering these ten years on can be an unexpected source of joy.

Why do we underestimate the joy of rediscovery? Because we never stay the same. We make the mistake of thinking that the person we are today will be the person we will be in the future, and that we’ll respond to the same things in the same way. We also tend to believe that the details we consider mundane today will hold their mundane status, and that our memory of the details will be accurate.

The truth is that our memories aren’t perfect – they fade, they are overwritten, they change shape over time.

In a recent study, researchers explored how people would feel when they recorded their seemingly insignificant experiences and rediscovered them in the future.


 The Research: What They Did

Participants created time capsules consisting of their responses to the following:

  • the last social event they attended;
  • a recent conversation;
  • how they met their roommate;
  • three songs they recently listened to;
  • an inside joke;
  • a recent photo;
  • a recent status posted on their Facebook profile;
  • an excerpt from a final class assessment; and
  • a question from a recent final exam.

For each question, participants had to predict:

1.  how curious they’d be to see what they’d said;

2.  how surprised they’d be after seeing what they’d documented; and 

3.  how meaningful and interesting they would find each response in the future.

Three months later they were allowed to read (‘rediscover’) their initial responses, but not before they rated how curious they were to read those responses.

What They Found

Results showed that the participants weren’t particularly good at predicting how curious they’d be in the future to read their responses, and how interesting those responses would be to them.

Even after only three months, the capsule more meaningful to them than they had anticipated.

So They Did a Second Study

In a second similar study, researchers asked participants to rate a conversation as ordinary or extraordinary. The more ordinary a conversation was rated, the more people underestimated how good it would be to rediscover it.

And a Third

In a third study, participants who were in an intimate relationship were asked to write about their experience of an extraordinary day (Valentines Day) and an ordinary day (a typical day around February 14).

Interestingly, perceptions of ordinary events became more extraordinary over time, whereas perceptions of extraordinary events stayed equally extraordinary.

People remembered less of what they had written about ordinary events than about extraordinary events.

And (Finally!), a Fourth

A fourth study found that because people underestimate the joy of rediscovery, they bypass opportunities to document their experiences. They the report in the future that they regret not being able to retrieve those records. It’s our human way, it seems, to underestimate our future curiosity for past experiences. We also tend to underestimate how fascinating we’ll find the process of rediscovery.

As a result, people forego the opportunity to document things that happen in the present. This is partly because people believe they will be able to remember more about an event than they actually can. This is generally the case for ordinary, rather than extraordinary, experiences.


 Researcher Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School explained, ‘We generally do not think about today’s ordinary moments as experiences that are worthy of being rediscovered in the future. However our studies show that we are often wrong:

What is ordinary now actually becomes more extraordinary in the future – and more extraordinary than we might expect.’

He continued, ‘People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbour, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment. The studies highlight the importance of not taking the presence for granted and documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them.’

But.

There is a cost to documenting experiences.

Past research has shown that taking photos or writing about them can interfere with the creation of the memory itself, or even create false memories.

The value that comes from documenting events lies in taking the time out to rediscover that which we have documented, not engaging in endless documentation bearing witness to every facet of daily life.

Ordinary moments today, if documented, can be a wonderful ‘present’ to ourselves in the future.

Life isn’t made up of big moments, it’s made up of many small moments brought together. Now we have research confirming how much the small moments matter. All that’s left now is to make them count. 

2 Comments

Mark Paver

Paying attention
To this moments… Happiness
Happens each moment

The least little thing
When you are present and still
Will happiness bring

If your happiness
Is just a mental construct
It will self-destruct

Happiness is quite
Natural… the opposite…
Totally man made

Let all that happens
Embrace you with joy like the
I in happiness

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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