The Key To Happiness (Is Cheap)
Why Happiness Can’t be Bought
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They’re the foundational rights we enjoy as Americans. And … that’s kinda wild?
I mean, sure, “life” makes sense. It’s generally a good sign if government is … you know, not killing you.
“Liberty?” Again, great call. Given the choice, you’d rather be in a country that doesn’t, say, seal you inside your own home in the case of a pandemic.
But “the pursuit of happiness”? That’s a pretty bold choice. Imagine writing the Declaration of Independence and making a point to say “you have the right to pursue good vibes.”
That’s how seriously Americans take happiness. In fact, we’re a little obsessed with it.
And there’s positive news on that front: We actually have a pretty good idea of what makes people happy.
There’s bad news though, too, which is that Americans are spending a lot of time and money … on things that won’t do the trick.
Happiness in America is big business. In 2018, it was estimated that Americans spent about $10 billion per year on programs or products that promised self-improvement.i And if you look around … well, it’s not hard to see where that money’s going.
Books and seminars from self-help gurus. Gratitude journals. Life coaches. Elaborate quests for 2,000-year-old chalices.
But is any of it working? Across 50 years of surveys, the percentage of Americans who say they’re “very happy” has only ever been about one-third.ii And in 2021, it reached all-time lows.
Now, the picture isn’t entirely dire. COVID was probably a big part of the recent downturn. And there is a much bigger chunk of Americans — consistently around half — who say they’re “pretty happy.”iii
But even that’s a little weird. We’re spending $10 billion a year and all we have to show for it is “Yeah … I’m fine”?
Well, at least part of the problem might be that we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Many of us, after all, have a bad habit of defining happiness in terms of things that are extremely hard to come by: wealth, fame, Taylor Swift tickets.
But research suggests that those dreams about life-changing opportunities don’t actually match up with the facts.
For proof, consider the mother of all windfalls: winning the lottery. It’s easy to imagine that a huge infusion of cash would change your life. But in reality? Researchers have actually studied lottery winners and discovered … it’s not as transformative as you’d think.
A famous study in the 1970s showed hardly any difference in happiness between people who had won the lottery and people who hadn’t. iv And, in fact, another study of lottery winners in 2007, found that the things that actually made them happy were things that are just as accessible to non-millionaires: going for a walk, listening to music, having some wine with dinner.v (A reasonable amount of wine.)
And that gets to the bigger principle at work here: For all the money we spend trying to live our best lives … most of the things that are actually proven to bring us happiness are surprisingly cheap.
In fact, the quickest way for money to buy us happiness is to spend it on someone else.
One study of workers who received bonuses found not only that they were happier if they spent the money on others, but that the very act of giving it away had more effect on their happiness than the size of the bonus.vi
In addition, one of the researchers involved calculated that the happiness that comes from giving to charity is about the same as the happiness that comes from doubling your own income.vii
And the more you look around, the more you’ll find that it’s simple behaviors — achievable for almost anyone — that provide the most happiness.
Climbing the ladder in your career? Research finds that the happiness that comes from pay increases tends to fade away over time.viii And that while success definitely has its benefits, it can also lead to dissatisfaction with other aspects of life. After all, as happiness scholar Arthur Brooks notes, a lot of successful people are also stressed-out people — and people who don’t have as much time for their friends and family.ix
The factors that actually make you happy with work? Things like working at a place that aligns with your values,x and working in a job that provides you with a sense of accomplishmentxi — which is something you don’t need to be a CEO to experience.
As for fame? Better to have a handful of good friends than millions of fans you’ll never meet.
Studies suggest that nearly 60 percent of the difference between how happy people are can be attributed to their friendships.xii Not that you have to be the life of the party: because the quality of friendships actually matters more than the quantity.
Also, it’s worth noting that there’s one other thing that’s not actually good at bringing happiness, which is … trying too hard to be happy. Because when people feel too much pressure on that front, they actually end up spending more time focusing on why they’re not happyxiii — a phenomenon that scholars refer to as “Instagram.”
Bottom line: We could all go a little easier on ourselves. We don’t have to become fundamentally different people to be happy. It’s not something that’s reserved for the rich and famous. It’s something that’s achievable for all of us through relatively easy steps in our everyday lives.
No need to search for the grail. Besides, it can get … complicated.
[Monty Python character who has lost a limb in search for the Holy Grail.]
- The U.S. Market for Self-Improvement Products & Services — Business Wire
- General Social Survey: Key Trends — National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago
- "Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?" (P. Brickman, D. Coates, R. Janoff-Bulman) — Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Happiness Comes Cheap — Even for Millionaires — University of Nottingham
- "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness" (Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton) — Science
- "Want To Feel Happier? Science Says Try Being More Generous." (Sofie Isenberg) — WBUR Boston
- "The Anticipation and Adaptation Effects of Intra- And Interpersonal Wage Changes on Job Satisfaction" (Patric Diriwaechter, Elena Shvartsman) — Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
- "If You Want Success, Pursue Happiness" (Arthur C. Brooks) — The Atlantic
- "Value Congruence as a Source of Intrinsic Motivation" (Ting Ren) — Kyklos
- "Job Satisfaction Determinants: A Study Across 48 Nations" (Jeanine K. Andreassi, Leanna Lawter, Martin Brockerhoff, Peter Rutigliano) — Sacred Heart University
- "I Am So Happy ’Cause Today I Found My Friend: Friendship and Personality as Predictors of Happiness" (Meliksah Demir, Lesley A. Weitekamp) — Journal of Happiness Studies
- "Does a Culture of Happiness Increase Rumination Over Failure?" (Lucy McGuirk, Peter Kuppens, Rosemary Kingston, Brock Bastian) — Emotion
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- Business Wire
The U.S. Market for Self-Improvement Products & Services
- National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago
General Social Survey: Key Trends
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
"Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?" (P. Brickman, D. Coates, R. Janoff-Bulman)
- University of Nottingham
Happiness Comes Cheap — Even for Millionaires
"Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness" (Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton)
- WBUR Boston
"Want To Feel Happier? Science Says Try Being More Generous." (Sofie Isenberg)
- Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
"The Anticipation and Adaptation Effects of Intra- And Interpersonal Wage Changes on Job Satisfaction" (Patric Diriwaechter, Elena Shvartsman)
- The Atlantic
"If You Want Success, Pursue Happiness" (Arthur C. Brooks)
"Value Congruence as a Source of Intrinsic Motivation" (Ting Ren)
- Sacred Heart University
"Job Satisfaction Determinants: A Study Across 48 Nations" (Jeanine K. Andreassi, Leanna Lawter, Martin Brockerhoff, Peter Rutigliano)
- Journal of Happiness Studies
"I Am So Happy ’Cause Today I Found My Friend: Friendship and Personality as Predictors of Happiness" (Meliksah Demir, Lesley A. Weitekamp)
"Does a Culture of Happiness Increase Rumination Over Failure?" (Lucy McGuirk, Peter Kuppens, Rosemary Kingston, Brock Bastian)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found is the Key to a Good Life” (The Atlantic)
- “Why We Shouldn’t Try to be Happy” (The Guardian)
- “Why People are Dissatisfied with the Country … but Happy with Their Own Lives” (Gallup)
- “Does Arthur Brooks Have the Secret to Happiness?” (GQ)
- “America is Obsessed with Happiness — and it’s Making Us Miserable” (Vox)
- “Bhutan and the Pursuit of “Gross National Happiness” (NPR)
- The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz