Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping. -Actress Bo Derek
Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.
-Actress Bo Derek
Take the happiness quiz to find out if Bo is right…
- Rich people
- Poor people
OK, if you went with Bo, you got the first one right—and I hope you did. (And if you did guess No. 2, then Bo and I have a bridge we want to sell you.)
Yes, research has shown that on the whole, rich people are happier than poor people. And it certainly didn’t take a rocket scientist to prove that one. It should be fairly obvious to anyone that sailing on your yacht in the Gulf while sipping piña coladas should make you a tad happier than scrounging around in the sofa cushions searching for change to buy a loaf of bread.
But, the next question concerning happiness is a bit harder—and just might prove that Bo should stick to acting and not to determining the philosophical aspects of happiness.
On average, what makes people the happiest?
- Wallowing in a bathtub full of money
- A new fire-engine red Lamborghini
- An iPhone 7 Plus
- An Xbox One
- A 20-room mansion with seven bathrooms
- A family vacation to the beach
If you’ll look closely, answers 1 through 5 are material possessions and answer 6 is not. Surprisingly, in separate studies, San Francisco State University professor Ryan Howell and Cornell University professor Thomas Gilovich found that pleasant experiences, such as a family vacation to the beach, top material possessions when it comes to long-term happiness and feelings of well-being.
Sorry Bo, but my own experiences tell me the same. My Sony flatscreen doesn’t hold a candle to a three-day St. Augustine vacation my wife and I took with our small children in the mid-90s. The motel room (which, trust me, didn’t cost a lot of money) had a wall with a very large hole in it covered up with several Band-Aids, we didn’t have cable TV, we had “table” TV, which consisted of a 1950s-model television with rabbit ear antennas sitting on a small table, and the refrigerator, which didn’t work, had towels stored in it. Yet, that simple (cheap) vacation meant more to me than any material possession I will ever own. It was an experience to remember, and our entire family still laughs and talks about “The Vacation” with time-aided fondness.
And that is what Howell and Gilovich found through their research. “Experiencing” life brings us the most happiness. According to Gilovich, humans often think possessions, due to their tangible presence and long-term nature, bring more continuing happiness than the intangible and sometimes elusive memories of an event, but research proves that to be wrong. Both researchers found that happiness is found more easily in a pleasant memory than in anything we might ever own.
What Is Happiness?
When considering happiness, it might help to define it. Webster’s says it is “a state of well-being and contentment; a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” That sounds simple enough, right? Not so quick. Can a subjective emotional state as complex as happiness be explained this objectively? After all, what makes one person happy doesn’t always make another person happy, and one person’s state of well-being certainly might not be another’s. With such subjectivity, maybe the only way to gauge true happiness is through the heart of the person seeking it. In other words, do you feel happy?
A random poll of a mix of 20 local adult men and women under 40 years of age yielded some interesting results. They were asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being extremely unhappy and 10 being extremely happy, how happy each one was at this point in his or her life. Respondents were told the poll would be completely anonymous, and their responses were recorded with no other person present. I felt this would assist them in providing a more honest and unbiased response.
Respondents overwhelmingly provided an answer less than 5, the level we would regard as average happiness for a normal person. Four persons responded with a happiness level of 3, eleven said 4, three responded with level 5, one with 6 and one with a level of 8.
These results are by no means scientific, and the test group is far too small to draw any viable conclusions, but it does give us a narrow sampling of the levels of happiness young adults are experiencing locally. Follow-up questions revealed that most of the young persons polled were more “global” in their thinking and looked beyond their personal lives when considering true happiness. Most felt a burden for those in need around them and across the world when considering the depth of their own personal happiness. In other words, if the world was a happier place, then they would be happier also.
Although this particular poll might seem to be slightly negative on the surface, it also seems to indicate that altruism is alive and well, and that is a good thing.
A study conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson lends some credence to our simple poll. Dunn, from the University of British Columbia, found that money, to a degree, does “modestly” increase our chances of finding happiness, but that increase is much more pronounced when we give our money away—and isn’t that akin to finding personal happiness only when others are happy also?
So, according to Dunn, the only thing missing in the lives of our young test group participants could be turning their altruistic feelings into philanthropic actions. Sort of like “putting your money where your heart is.”
Dunn says you may find increased happiness if you:
- Pay close attention to the happiness of others.
- Use your money to benefit others rather than yourself.
- Buy more experiences and fewer material goods.
- Buy many small pleasures rather than a few large ones.
The Benefits Of Happiness
Over the decades, research has shown that increased levels of happiness and positive thinking (the two generally go hand in hand) have positive results when it comes to social acceptance and improved mental and physical health. In other words, on average, the happier and more positive you are, the more friends you have and the healthier you are.
It would seem obvious that persons with a positive outlook on life and who exude happiness would naturally draw people to themselves and thereby have more friends, but some of the physical and mental attributes of being happy are pleasantly surprising.
People who are happier generally have:
- Lower heart rates
- Less overall pain
- Lower blood pressures
- Less stress-related illnesses
- Longer lifespans
- Stronger immune systems to help combat disease
Studies show that happiness generally makes you healthier and being healthier should generally make you happier. This would make it seem that once you get caught up in the great cycle of happiness, life just continues to get better and better. But is happiness all a bed of roses?
I’m So Happy I Could Just Die!
Yes, there are many upsides to being a happy person, but, believe it or not, many people have died from happiness. For instance, a few have died after discovering they won a lottery. Now, this should be considered a special instance as it involves the release of adrenalin and the reaction of the heart muscle, but some research has surprisingly shown that persons who are chronically happy die younger than their more moderately happy peers.
A study headed by Yale University professor Jane Gruber titled A Dark Side of Happiness? When and Why Happiness is not Always Good pretty much tells it all by its name. It seems that happiness has a time and place, needs to be the right type of happiness and needs to be pursued in a certain way—otherwise it could possibly have a dark side and might even be deadly.
According to Gruber, “lines of research suggest that although happiness is often highly beneficial, it may not be beneficial at every level, in every context, for every reason and in every variety.” She goes on to say that happiness is good—in moderation. It seems that too high a level of sustained happiness can have detrimental effects such as 1) increase in risky behavior including alcoholism, binge eating and drug use 2) tending to neglect threats and dangers and 3) initiation of possible psychiatric disorders.
Gruber also cites studies that show persons who, according to their parents and teachers, exhibit a high degree of cheerfulness tend to live shorter lives. An interesting finding in this study was the fact that although these cheerful people did exhibit the same risky behaviors as persons who are “too happy,” it was not proven that these behaviors were the factors leading to premature mortality. In other words, highly cheerful people tend to die younger, but, as of now, no one knows why.
Gruber cited another interesting finding that the pursuit of happiness (our inalienable right as guaranteed in the Constitution) is not usually a good thing. It seems that the more we pursue happiness, the less of it we have. According to Gruber, “the pursuit of happiness may lead to maladaptive outcomes because it sets people up for disappointment.” Her research shows that if we put too high a value on being happy and if we also seek to increase our ability to be happy, it has a tendency to backfire and make us unhappy.
Before reading this, I had planned to include “5 Ways to Lead a Happier, Healthier Life,” but after reading Gruber’s study results I felt I might help you better by not offering any advice at all other than just accept yourself “as is” and hope for the best. After all, Healthy Living is here to help you lead a better life… not shorten it.
Happiness In A Nutshell
What all these studies tell us is that happiness can be positive and it can be somewhat negative. So, how should we interpret these findings? Maybe by taking a step back away from academia’s search for the causes and effects of happiness and taking a look at happiness using a little common sense.
Is it better to be happy or sad and depressed? Of course, it’s better to be happy. And even if over exuberance were to take a few months off your life, wouldn’t it be worth it? After all, wouldn’t 85 years of happiness and bliss be better than 85 years and five months of sullen despondency?
Want to be happy? Experience life, surround yourself with good friends, give to others, accept and love those around you and seek to see the positive in every person and in every experience. OK, so maybe I did include five ways to lead a happier and healthier life after all.