Size matters: small things make us happy

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It really is the small things that make us happy.

This is what’s made me happy this week.

1.    Treating myself to a coffee on the way to work, and it wasn’t even Friday

2.    Buying My Lovely Husband (MLH) a caramel donut, to make him happy

3.    Having the first draft of a feature signed off with an accompanying email that says, “I like it. I have no changes. Consider this signed off.” Bliss!

These are small, trivial acts. The don’t cost very much, if anything. I haven’t booked a safari trek to South Africa and I haven’t bought a new car. In fact, if I did, I’d only worry about what I’d spent to get them.

So, if it’s the small things that make us most happy, why don’t we do them more?

1.    The treat

Remember the vanilla latte I bought on the way to work? This is exactly what I’m talking about. But what constitutes a ‘treat’? you ask. Well, let’s look at the evidence. Elizabeth Dunn (UBC), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard) and Timothy Wilson (Virginia) wrote ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which summaries research into eight recommendations. One is to buy lots of small-ticket items – my coffee, or a trinket necklace, a new scarf or a car magazine – instead of fewer large items – the TV you don’t need, the reverse cameras for your car (sorry, that’s a private dig at MLH, I digress), the uber-expensive leather jacket.

Studies prove you’ll be happier by the frequency of the purchase, rather than its greatness.

2.    The good deed

If you walk into a shop and buy something meant for someone else, the chances are you’ll feel pleased with yourself. I certainly felt pretty smug with MLH’s caramel donut.

Why though? Again, let’s look at the evidence. In the Journal of Social Psychology’s ‘Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction’, 86 participants took a survey measuring life satisfaction. Then they were split into three groups. One group performed daily acts of kindness for 10 days. The second simply did something new each day. The third group did what the hell they wanted. The results showed that the groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts were both significantly happier. The third group didn’t get any happier. 

So to come back to the question, why are we happier when we’re nicer? Human nature. The small deeds that make others happy, in turn, dials up our happiness barometer. In addition, the more we feed off others’ happiness, the more likely we are to do more good again and again and again. Oh dear, my husband could get very fat from all the caramel donuts…

3.    The positive feedback

Forget constructive feedback. Sometimes we just need a pat on the back and nice words. Let’s see why. Findings from a study by Harvard Business School showed that when people were reminded of their best work, they work more creative and less stressed. It’s a little gift of confidence. And it’s the difference between a good and a bad day. So why don’t people praise us more, and why don’t we tell the people we admire that we admire them? Because we’re a society that hates braggers. And we all resist the urge to seek praise. It might be fashionable to think that praise is bad, but when it comes on an unexpected day, from an unexpected place, it can be a powerful thing indeed.

What makes you happy? Are you treating yourself to the right things? Partaking in random acts of kindness? And are you giving praise to people around you? Remember, it’s the small things, after all.

Follow me on Twitter, if you fancy it! @akmanvell

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