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 is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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