ON NEW YEAR’S DAY 1994, life was looking pretty good. I was age 35 and, despite not having a college degree, was slowly climbing the corporate ladder. I’d just finished the most lucrative year of my career, and a semi-promotion promised to increase my income by 50% to 100%. My wife Kathleen was happily home-schooling our six- and 13-year-old boys, and we were thinking about buying a bigger house.
Then life happened.
HAPPINESS RESEARCH fascinates me—and I’m not alone. Many of the insights uncovered by economists and psychologists have caught on with the general public, influencing countless life decisions.
Do you favor experiences over possessions? Do you strive to keep your commute short? Do you pause occasionally to ponder the good things in your life? Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely been influenced by happiness research.
But it turns out that there are two popular insights that we need to unlearn—because they haven’t held up to close scrutiny:
Have you heard that happiness caps out at an income of $75,000 a year?
RESEARCHERS HAVE spent decades probing the connection between money and happiness. For instance, a much-cited 2010 study by academics Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that folks tend to feel happier the more money they make—but only up to a point, which they estimated to be about $75,000 a year.
But using only income to measure the link between money and happiness is incomplete. Another study, entitled “How Your Bank Balance Buys Happiness,” analyzed the connection to people’s “cash on hand.” The researchers found that having more money in checking and savings accounts was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
DANIEL SUELO is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. At dinner with him and some friends almost a decade ago, I spent the evening trying to understand his view of money—or, to be more accurate, his refusal to believe in money at all.
Suelo was in Montana to talk about a book that had been written about him, The Man Who Quit Money. As the title implies, Suelo—a well-educated and articulate man—made a decision in 2000 to stop using money.
FOR A LIFE TO BE meaningful, it doesn’t need to be unique—and yet many of us believe that’s necessary. We’re convinced we lack something special, and that paralyzes us. This is a mistake, says the philosopher Iddo Landau, who argues that everybody already possesses what they need for a meaningful existence. We just need to look harder.
I’ve spent years researching and educating myself on how to find and cultivate purpose. This helped me to develop a process to guide clients,
TODAY, I SING the praises of spending—on the little things in life.
We fiercely resist the suggestion that money doesn’t buy happiness. Commentators will often trot out the quote—which has been attributed to all kinds of folks—that, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!”
I think that’s true. But it isn’t proportionally true. If you went from earning $100,000 a year to earning $200,000, or your portfolio grew from $500,000 to $1 million,
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,
IT’S BEEN AN UNHAPPY few months. Stepping outside means risking our health. One out of six U.S. workers is unemployed or soon will be. The stock market has suffered its worst decline since 2007-09. And while we can take steps to help ourselves, the situation is largely out of our control.
Feeling glum? One of my abiding interests is happiness research, and that research offers ideas that can make our current situation a little cheerier.
IT’S 4:45 A.M. and another day quarantined at home. Even though I have nowhere to go, I still get up early. It’s one of my favorite times of the day. This is when I go downstairs to the kitchen, make myself a cup of tea, toast some raisin bread and read about what’s happening in the world.
Later, Rachel and I will go for a walk and then have breakfast together. This is how we now lead our lives—sequestered in the house—away from friends and family.
CLAY COCKRELL HAS an unusual job. He describes himself as a psychotherapist treating the “1% of the 1%” in New York City. From this vantage point, Cockrell has gained unique insights into the lives of the extremely wealthy. What conclusions does he draw about money and happiness? “If you have an enemy,” Cockrell says, “go buy them a lottery ticket because, on the off-chance that they win, their life is going to be really messed up.”
This observation fits well with the aphorism that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” There’s a growing body of research supporting this view.
I OFTEN FEEL LIKE the Grinch, who “puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore.” One question I’ve puzzled over endlessly: If what I do barely matters in the greater scheme of things, why in the world do I keep doing it?
Here are four related thoughts that often crop up in my writing:
One of life’s great pleasures is working hard at something we care deeply about.
While striving toward our goals can bring great satisfaction,
WE CONSTANTLY strive for more: A bigger paycheck. A loftier job title. A larger home. A more luxurious car. New electronic toys. Higher investment returns.
Make no mistake: There can be great pleasure in this striving—but we may not be so happy with the results. Indeed, on this holiday that celebrates America’s independence, let me put in a plug for a most un-American concept: How about settling for enough—and perhaps even opting for less?
AS I GROW OLDER, I find I become ever more deliberate in how I spend my time and money. How can I get maximum happiness from the dollars I have? How can I get the most from the years that remain? As I wrestle with these questions, six notions have come into much sharper focus:
1. Fewer hassles mean greater happiness. When I was in my 20s, I owned a series of clunkers that turned every trip into a nail-biter.
HOW WE CHOOSE to spend our time and money is a declaration of what we deem important. A modest example: We might enjoy watching a wide array of cable channels, while caring little about the clothes we wear, and that’s reflected in our costly cable bill and minimal spending on clothing. And there’s nothing wrong with a choice like that—if it is indeed what we want.
But is it? Often, the things we consider important—and hence how we lead our lives and how we spend our money—aren’t the product of our own careful contemplation.
WE MAKE COUNTLESS decisions—financial and otherwise—with little or no thought to the dollars at stake:
We purchase items that we know are overpriced and almost guaranteed to lose value, but we do so happily, because they have a meaning for us that’s far greater than their price tag. Think of artwork and vacation souvenirs that are purchased because they remind us of moments we treasure.
We prize family possessions for their sentimental value, even though they typically have scant financial worth.