WE DON’T PURSUE MONEY just to put food on the table and a roof over our head. Instead, the hope is to enhance our life. On that score, it seems we aren’t doing terribly well: Our reported level of happiness is no higher than it was half a century ago.
Could we do better? I believe so. There’s been extensive research on happiness in recent decades. For those who want to dig into the details, you can find a great summary here. Want the Reader’s Digest version? These 15 steps could help your happiness:
1. Build wealth. Those with more income and greater wealth typically report higher levels of happiness, though there remains much debate about the precise relationship. Does the impact of money on happiness cap out at some income level? Does more money really improve day-to-day happiness—or only when we think about our standing relative to others? Whatever the case, money seems to help, so go ahead and save a little more. Your future self will thank you.
2. Avoid comparisons. While those with great wealth may get a warm glow when they ponder their bank balance, the rest of us need to tread more carefully: We may feel discontent with our lot in life if we know others have more. This is a reason to avoid living in a town where we’ll have rich neighbors, to skip restaurants we can’t really afford and to steer clear of salary discussions at the office.
3. Invest in friendship. Regularly seeing friends can give a big boost to happiness. Similarly, marriage seems to be a plus for happiness. But it appears divorce also helps, while widowhood can be devastating.
4. Get religion. Those who are religious tend to report higher levels of happiness, though the connection seems to be strongest among those with lower incomes or who live in less prosperous countries.
5. Work on your health. There’s some evidence that we adapt, at least in part, to debilitating medical conditions. Still, those in good health often report higher levels of happiness. Indeed, it appears to be a virtuous circle: Healthier people are happier—and happier people are more likely to take care of their health.
6. Pursue your passions. We get great pleasure from working hard at something we’re passionate about and that we feel is important, whether it’s at home, in the community or at the office. The pleasure lies less in achieving our goals and more in making progress toward them. Again, there seems to be a virtuous circle: Fulfilling work can boost happiness—and happy workers tend to be more productive.
7. Favor experiences over possessions. This is perhaps the insight from happiness research that’s received the greatest attention. But even if we should devote more dollars to experiences, we all end up purchasing some possessions. The key: Think twice about possessions that’ll involve ongoing hassles. We’re talking about things like the big yard and the second home, both of which can involve substantial maintenance. Meanwhile, we should favor possessions that help us to socialize and to have fun experiences—which, of course, might lead us to conclude that the big yard and the second home aren’t so bad.
8. Pay to avoid distasteful tasks. Rather than trying to buy happiness, we might spend money to avoid unhappiness. Don’t like cleaning the house or mowing the lawn? We should consider hiring somebody to do these things for us.
9. Cut your commute. We like to feel in control—but that’s tough to do if we have a long commute, with the potential for traffic jams, roadworks, and delayed trains and buses. Want to boost happiness? Try moving closer to work.
10. Give back. We tend to think we’ll get greater happiness from spending on ourselves, rather than on others. But research suggests otherwise. We should be generous with friends and family, give regularly to charity—and also give our time, by volunteering to help causes that we think are important.
11. Make smaller purchases. Just because something costs 10 times more doesn’t mean we’ll get 10 times the happiness. The lesson: We’ll likely get greater happiness from many small purchases, rather than one big one.
12. Plan ahead. Often, the best part of a purchase or experience is the anticipation, as we look forward to having the kitchen remodeled or getting away for a week. Want more happiness from these expenditures? Make plans far ahead of time.
13. Focus on the positive. I know, I know, this sounds like some cliché from a self-help book. But in terms of our happiness, what matters is what we focus on—so we should strive to ignore irritations and instead zero in on the good parts of each day.
14. Express gratitude. We often quickly adapt to material improvements, while also forgetting the fun experiences we’ve had. To counteract this tendency, we should pause occasionally to think about the friends and family who surround us, the possessions we’ve accumulated and the wonderful experiences we’ve enjoyed.
15. Minimize money worries. Money has the potential to buy happiness. But if we spend recklessly and end up financially stressed, our efforts will likely backfire. Indeed, it seems that—if we pay ahead of time—we often enjoy experiences more, because we aren’t thinking about the cost. This notion also applies to retirement: Those with predictable income that covers much of their living costs, whether it’s from a pension, Social Security, immediate annuities or elsewhere, appear to have happier retirements.
What doesn’t make the above list? Children. I mention this reluctantly, because it’ll probably get me hate mail. But the research suggests that raising children doesn’t help happiness. Obviously, we’re biologically wired to want children—and, once we have adult children and then grandchildren, our growing family can be a source of great joy. But getting there can be rough.