Stop buying happiness! Get it here for free.

I’ve been immersed in positive psychology research for days now for a paper that I’m writing about our expectations of money and happiness (stay tuned for an excerpt next week!).  It got me thinking about how much money we put down hoping for happiness in return, and all the ways we could build our better happiness ourselves for free.  It seemed worth passing on some of the highlights of this research so that everyone can get a little extra happy today.  If you're curious about sources, message me for footnotes!


I would like first of all to address the myth (is it even still out there?  Of course it is.) that having more money will make you happier.  Now there is a clear correlation between having your survival and safety needs met and happiness.  Researchers at Princeton determined that happiness increased right alongside income until about $75,000 (national average), after which there was no increase in happiness regardless of income.  This makes sense - worrying about how you’ll pay for it if the hot water tank goes or if you break a leg reduces happiness, and money can make those concerns go away.  However while study participants expected that if their income increased from $25,000 to $55,000 they would be twice as happy, in fact the happiness difference between the two income groups differed by only 9%.  And it turns out lottery winners are generally less happy after their wins than before. 

So where CAN we find our happy?  Positive psychology research indicates three main routes to happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Here are a few ways you can increase these right now:


This road to happiness is all about opening yourself to the positive experiences in your current life.  



A key part of enhancing your positive experiences is being really aware that you're having them.  This means that next time you are doing something you enjoy, practice being more mindfully present in every aspect of that pleasure.  Check in with every sense: smell the cinnamon in the room, feel the warmth of the sun on your cheek, listen for the crunch of leaves while you walk.  Savor.


Gratitude helps you focus on the positive experiences you already have and is one of the top five strengths that contributes to happiness (more on strengths later!).  Make a list at the end of every day of 10-15 things you are grateful for.  Stretch yourself - if ten is easy, list twenty.  Try to dig deep; build new pathways rather than relying on the things you already know you should be grateful for.  In reality you are probably taking those for granted anyway!  


Optimism is another huge indicator of happiness. Optimists believe that negative experiences are temporary and a result of bad luck, and that positive experiences are permanent and related to their core self.  Pessimists believe the opposite.  So practice your optimism: think of one situation that went well and one that went badly, and list possible personal explanations for the success and possible situational explanations for the disappointment.  

Note: this is not to say that optimists are factually accurate, and pessimists should adopt their beliefs.  But some of the most interesting research I’ve read shows that your happiness isn’t affected by what happens to you at all, rather by how you interpret those events.  So build your interpretation muscles, practice thinking about the events of your life in a new way, and pave the way to experience your life differently (whether the facts of your life change or not).


This is all about harnessing your strengths and riding hellbent for leather.  Everyone knows the feeling of “flow,” of being totally absorbed in what you’re doing such that you’re totally unaware of time passing.  That’s full and complete engagement.


First of all, take a look at what your strengths really are.  The positive psychology website

has down the center of their homepage a list of free assessments you can take.  You have to set up an account, but I’ve never received an email from them.  Many of these are fascinating, and you may learn a lot about yourself by going through them.  But for our purposes today we’re interested in the VIA Survey of Character Strengths (under Engagement Questionnaires).  They will ask you 240 questions about yourself and use your answers to rank you on 24 strengths.  (For the record, my top five are authenticity, diligence, bravery, love of learning, and curiosity.  Thank you VIA!)  Once you know them, you can focus on using your top five to greater advantage, or you can focus on building up your bottom five.

Try this: once you know your top strength, watch throughout a day and see where you use it. Then brainstorm how you might use that strength in other situations (at home rather than at work, or with strangers rather than with loved ones).


When is the last time you started a project and looked up shocked at how much time had passed?  Focus on the types of activities that fully engage you (working out, making art, organizing your files - is that just me?) and make sure you make time THIS WEEK to lose yourself.


Here’s the big dog: using your strengths in service of something larger than yourself.  This is where happy people live, people who experience flow and fulfillment regularly.

I pulled this fortune from a fortune cookie last year... 

I pulled this fortune from a fortune cookie last year... 


Look at your top strengths from the VIA survey, or assess in your own mind what your single greatest strength is (and don’t think of skills unless you also enjoy using a particular skill).  Who could really use that strength and how can you offer it?  If you scored high on curiosity and love of learning, perhaps you could volunteer with a museum program for children.  If you scored high on justice and fairness, perhaps you could connect with a Legal Aid office and see how you could support them.  You don’t have to work through an organization, but find some way to offer your strength to others.


Write up the story of your life as you want it to be known.  What are you proud of?  What do you want to be remembered for?  Now think about what you can do right now that will make your life story something you’d be proud to pass on to your grandchildren.  What do you want to improve on?  Move towards?  Get to work!


You might feel weird about doing "exercises," but if you don't do something differently you're a lot less likely to feel differently.  Besides, even very small boosts of happiness each day have a significant impact on your overall perception of happiness.  So go build yourself a life of meaning and fulfillment, because that is where you’ll find your happy.