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How to Buy Happiness

When we walked by the graveyard one day, Marcus said, “you know, when you die, there is no more life. So you have to have a good life.” Very thoughtful and wise for a 6-year-old. Unless you believe in afterlife with total certainty, happiness is in fact the end game. Someone else can have more money, more power, more friends — whatever — but all that means nothing if you can convincingly say that you’re happier.

Happiness is often elusive: You can be looking for it all the time in all the obvious places and never find it. Your mind also plays tricks with happiness. You can be miserable and then years later derive happiness from the memories of your misery. Time matters. Some sources of happiness are fleeting while others last a life-time. Your expectation matters, too. If you expect too much then you’d be living in constant disappointment.

My own musings aside, I recently came across some scientific research on happiness. Some of findings merely affirm what most of us already know but have a hard time practicing. Some are counter intuitive and can help us getting more from the time we’re allotted here. In the old days people did research on this topic using surveys, which, given the tricks our minds play, should be treated with a lot of skepticism. But now researchers use brain scans so the data is more reliable. Among all the research, I find the relationship between money and happiness the most interesting. The gist is that happiness can indeed be bought, but you need to spent your money the right way. Here’re a few guidelines which I find the most instructive. Keep in mind that this is not some Dalai Lama, fluffy, self-help crap. There’s solid data supporting these conclusions.

  • Buy experience, not things. In college some kid said in a party, “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” My response was, “whoever dies loses, period.” Seems obvious. Another way to look at it, if you spend money on something you don’t need to store, you’re on the track.
  • Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones. I love good smelling French-milled soap that can cost more $10 a bar. It’s hard for me to think of anything else that gives me more happiness per dollar.
  • Buy less insurance. I’m not talking about car insurance, but the whole philosophical concept of insurance. People generally handle adversity much better than they imagine: big dip in income, loss of a dear one, physical disability, etc. As we’ve discovered here on the island, you can make a fraction of your previous income and still live happily.
  • Pay now and consume later. Expectation of happiness is better than happiness itself.

If you want to get it from the horse’s mouth, here’s the full research paper.

What We're Buying with Winston's Income

  1. Todd Brown #

    “Unless you’re devout, happiness is in fact the end game.” Point taken, but only conditionally correct. If there is no afterlife, then happiness would be the endgame. Some traditions, such as Buddhism, strive not for happiness but rather for ‘enlightenment’ or perhaps other states of existence. If any of the three great monotheistic religions are true, they are absolute in their teaching. If there is absolute truth, then one’s individual belief system does not affect it. Neither one’s degree of devoutness, nor depth of belief, nor certainty of knowledge affects the actual endgame. It is what is is.

    But happiness is a laudable goal!

    December 9, 2011
    • Ah – the objective-subjective debate. Agreed that I’m looking at this entirely from a subjective point of view. If the subjective view is wrong, then, well, you’d know in afterlife.

      I suppose what I mean by “devout” is a “firm belief in an afterlife,” no matter what religion. But I don’t know many people who believe in afterlife with such certainty. Most people, even those claim to be devout, don’t want to die, because of this uncertainty.

      The Buddhist “enlightenment” is one way to achieve happiness. That’s the fickle thing with happiness. It often comes out when you’re devoted to something else.

      December 10, 2011
  2. Buy experience, not things – That is key to happiness. Thanks

    December 10, 2011
  3. Phil Cooper #

    Very philosophical! I recommend reading The Geography of Bliss if you haven’t already.

    December 10, 2011
    • Sounds interesting. Just downloaded the first chapter on Kindle. Will report back!

      December 10, 2011
  4. Wonderful post! I often think about this myself as it seems like so many people in this world, especially Americans, are unhappy. They take so much for granted. An education for their children, food for the family, living without pollution, having human rights etc. SOmetimes I think people only think about the materialistic things which I think is nuts. Yes, money does help. It allows you to do things you can’t when you don’t have any, yet there is so much more to life and happiness than money! Nature, health, loved ones, and enjoying life are things that money can never buy!

    December 11, 2011

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