We have all heard the very good advice to not sweat the small stuff. We tend to get frustrated and angry at things that don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. As Epictetus said, we buy peace of mind at a small price when we don’t allow a perceived wrong to rattle us.
When it comes to cultivating happiness however, it is the small things that really matter. Study findings in psychology show that the frequency of our positive experiences matter much more than the intensity of our positive experiences.
Happiness consists more in small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.
We tend to think that intense mind-blowing experiences will make us happy, like partying with our favorite rock stars, going on vacation to Hawaii, or buying a Porsche. But happiness research studies have shown that how great your experiences are doesn’t matter nearly as much as how many good experiences we have.
It makes sense to me that someone who has multiple mildly good things happen each day, and can expect such events to happen, is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single amazing thing happen.
Big things don’t necessarily make us happy. Think about all the anecdotes of lottery winners who end up not so happy, or sadly celebrity suicides. People who have big incredible events that we think would make us happy, end up miserable or at least not noticeably happy. It reminds me of Richard Cory.
It turns out it is really difficult for us to predict our future affective states. We imagine that one or two big events will deeply effect us. Happiness is actually the aggregate of lots of little things. The little things count and the little things are within our control to make happen. We just need to carve out the time and do them consistently. Consistency is the key.
Achieving happiness requires a similar approach as losing weight. There is no secret to losing weight: eat less and exercise more. What makes people shy away from the path is they think it takes big changes. It doesn’t have to be big changes. It just needs to be small changes done consistently.
The actions you can take to increase your happiness are like that. They are obvious and small and take a little time, and you have to be mindful to do them everyday. In these cases, we need to sweat the small stuff. We need to be cognizant and mindful.
So find little things that make you happy and that are in your sphere of influence to effect, and fit them consistently into your life:
Have that ice cream
Hug your kids
Kiss your mate
Have coffee on the porch
Listen to that song
Call your best friend
Reward yourself with that modest thing you’ve wanted
It’s the small stuff that matters. Small is beautiful.
If you are interested, there is an app for tracking your happiness in real time. It was developed by a Harvard researcher to gather data for a large scale study of happiness. You’ll be able to track your happiness and find out what factors — for you personally — are associated with greater happiness. You’ll also contribute to the scientific understanding of happiness.