Prevention Magazine . October, 2006
Never settle for less than what you want with these research-tested routes to a brighter future
I was sitting in front of the lush, flower-draped altar a few months ago when my youngest son, Andrei, married Nadia, the woman of his dreams. Mine, too, I might add—which should make my transformation into her mother-in-law much less traumatic for all. It rained on their June wedding day, so the ceremony had to be held in a tent instead of the beautiful old garden in which we’d hoped. But wet weather wasn’t enough to dampen the happiness we were all feeling in that moment, and earnestly wishing for the new couple in the years to come.
Of course, wishing won’t make it so. Happiness doesn’t just happen for most people, particularly in our fast-paced society where it’s easy to feel isolated, rushed, and deprived in comparison to the “beautiful people” in magazines and movies and on TV. Research indicates that Americans today are significantly less happy and more depressed than our parents and grandparents ever were, despite all the computers, iPods, plasma TVs, and other grown-up toys that are increasingly available to us. The fact is, happiness has to be sought out. You can’t just leave it to chance, and you have to be wary of false paths that can lead you astray.
The first dead-end road is one that leads only to money. Forget the old adage that you can’t be too rich or too thin. At 60 I’ve reached the point where I’ve decided to choose a fuller face over a skinnier butt. But what about the too rich part? If you don’t have food, shelter, and clothing, then making enough money to cover basic needs will definitely increase your happiness. But beyond that, studies show that extra money matters relatively little. (People who live in Nigeria, where the annual per capita income is a mere $1,000 and creature comforts are few, report considerably more happiness than do average Americans.) Doubling your income may increase your happiness slightly, but it doesn’t double it. It can actually make you less happy. The more people make, the more they tend to spend, so it’s easy to end up chasing the proverbial carrot.
Researchers call this being on the “hedonic treadmill.” Running after dollars to get that special goody—whether it’s a new pair of shoes or an updated kitchen—can wear you down, and suck time and energy away from the things that really matter. Consider what happens to lottery winners: They experience a temporary postwin high, but within 3 years their happiness levels revert to what they were prejackpot.
Another false path is the one that heads for prestige. Forget about that Prada handbag or that Porsche—the bargain from a discount chain or used-car dealer will do just as well when it comes to making you happy. In fact, some of the wealthiest people I know are the plainest dressers and drivers. They have nothing to prove and are content to please themselves. Comparing yourself to others—whether the amount of free time you have, your success at work, who you’ve dated or married, or what you’re wearing—-is a happiness toxin.
Steps on the True Path to Happiness
- Be with the ones you love So there I was at Andrei and Nadia’s wedding, visiting with relatives I hadn’t seen in years. Such a rare pleasure, because they live thousands of miles away. But research shows time with loved ones is a primary source of fulfillment.
- Care about your work Finding your work meaningful and having a sense of commitment to it not only makes you less prone to feeling stress on the job, but also promotes success—and happiness. That’s true whether you’re searching for a cure for cancer or building cars on an assembly line—you can look at it as just a paycheck, or as your life’s work. Cultivating a sense of purpose can increase your satisfaction with your job and your life.
- Maintain your health It’s easy to take health for granted until you don’t have it anymore. But it turns out that the healthier you are, the more likely you are to be happy. The obvious moral is that you’ll be happier if you eat right, exercise, get preventive care, and reduce your stress level.
- Have regular sex Physical intimacy is a key contributor to happiness, found a study by Dartmouth economist David Blanchflower, PhD, and Andrew Oswald, PhD, of England’s University of Warwick. Married people report 30% more sex than singles, which may be one reason they also report being happier.
- Ask about other people’s experience Will that vacation in Huatulco, that used Audi, or that cute guy who you just found out is thrice divorced make you happy? Sometimes the answer is right under your nose, but you’re just too proud (or convinced of your own uniqueness) to ask. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, PhD, and his research partner Timothy Wilson, PhD, at the University of Virginia, call our imaginative jaunts into future feelings “affective forecasting.” They’ve discovered that asking people who have been there and done that a question like, “What was it like being married to Max?” or “How is it working in an ER?” leads to more accurate forecasting.
- Practice altruism Helping other people is one of the most effective ways to boost your self-esteem, research shows. That, in turn, uncorks a whole bottle of brain hormones and can lead to happiness, health, and well-being. His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks of altruism as enlightened selfishness, because it ultimately serves your own happiness.
- Become part of a community Whether you’re deeply involved with a religious group, a civic organization, or an athletic team, a feeling of strong community is one of the most important paths to happiness. One of the perks of living in my small town is that simply taking a walk is a community experience. I know my neighbors care about me, and they know that I care about them.
At the end of the day, joy comes from experiencing ourselves as part of a larger, meaningful whole. Accumulating material things won’t get you there. Living the life of the heart is the authentic way to pursue happiness.
Tips to up your happiness quotient
- Volunteer your time and energy. The upcoming holiday season means that there’s an increased need for people to serve meals, raise funds, and visit the sick or needy.
- Think of three people you love and haven’t connected with lately. Get in touch and, if at all possible, make plans to see them.
- Feeling lonely? Find a group to join, whether it’s a book club, a religious organization, or a community chorus.