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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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