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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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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