What do you need to make your life look better? Will a dime do? Psychologist Norbert Schwarz, at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, says mere moods often determine our overall satisfaction with our lives. And, he says, "Very minimal things can temporarily put you in a good mood," and thus brighten everything else.
In a classic study at a German university, Schwarz in the course of a day occasionally placed a coin equivalent to a dime on a copy machine for the next user to find.
Later, everyone who used the machine was interviewed about their lives.
"Those who found the dime were more happy and more satisfied and wanted to change their lives less than those who didn't find a dime," says Schwarz.
A dime? A measly dime? I'd need at least a $5 bill.
But no, he says.
"It's not the value of what you find. It's that something positive happened to you," and surprised you.
Think about how hard it is to answer when someone asks, "How's your life?" Any life is a stew of work, play, health, home, money, sex, friends, family and dozens of other elements.
Instead, we press a thumb to the pulse of our mood, and answer based on how we feel that moment.
We misread passing moods, says Schwarz, as the truth about our lives.
So, soccer fans whose team won the championship report having better lives than those whose team lost.
Another study asked people leaving a grocery store to evaluate only their satisfaction with their TVs back home. Listen to this: Those who minutes earlier got a free sample of food from the store liked their TVs better than those who missed the sample.
Amazing how a mouthful of free lemon pound cake can improve your life, at least superficially, at least for a few minutes.
But, Schwarz says, "The dime" or the pound cake "only works if you're not aware you're happy because you found it."
Once you think about the dime, you realize it's a silly reason to feel good, that it doesn't make a bit of difference, really.
Then, you can assess your life more coldly and honestly.
But who wants to?
The day after I talked to Schwarz about this elusive thing we call contentment, I found myself stuck in a downtown traffic jam, way late getting home, annoyed at an unsatisfying day and the challenges facing me tomorrow.
As I inched my car through a green light, a shabby man stepped into the street, hoping to cross.
I wanted to rush forward. I had the light. I was late already.
Instead, I stopped. He walked slowly across, in front of my car, and looked me in the eye. Then he smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
It was nothing but a gesture from a stranger, a dumb dime, no good reason to think any differently about anything.
But I couldn't help myself.
Life looked good.
Susan Ager is a lifestyle columnist for the Detroit Free Press.