How to Be Happier: What the Research Shows

Can money buy happiness? How can you get out of a rut, such as an awful job? Learn about research into the 5 elements that can make you happier--and how to slip them into each day.

In one of the early meetings about starting our own company, Starpoint Marketing, my partner Mary said: “Let’s create the kind of company we actually want to work for.” She’s a master at simple, profound statements like this one—the same ones I end up quoting back to her in agreement.

While our work is rewarding and our partnership runs like a dream, I haven’t yet found the right work-life balance. I guess that’s not surprising when launching a new company. So despite the best intentions to rekindle my long-lost yoga practice for just a few minutes one morning in May, instead I dashed off 10 minutes late to a jam-packed work session (during which we designed, debriefed, wrote, responded, decided, drafted, and more). Then I dashed home with just enough time to meet the school bus, followed by multitasking homework supervision while catching up on email.

At 5:30, it was time for a little break with my boy. Remembering that I had mentioned the desire to squeeze in a little yoga this morning, my son asked to do some together. What a kid! Side-by-side, my almost-eight-year-old and I completed a bunch of warrior poses, tree, and some other moves. He tried the challenging crow pose and tossed off a happy baby. We had a quick chat about Sanskrit, did some shoulder stands, and ended with a brief savasana, with mom-led imagery about an afternoon at the beach. The session ended with a big hug, assuredly the best part.

The whole thing took about 15 minutes and left us both feeling great. Little did I know, we had just completed three out of five of the recommended steps for increased happiness according to research from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. Published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the study found that time is a larger factor in happiness than money. While this may not seem surprising, it’s counter to the motivations many of us use to make decisions large and small.

The authors agree that not every moment can be sheer joy, but they note that experiences matter more in the long-term than finances: “You might not recall how much money you had in your bank account when you were 20 years old, but most people remember their first kiss.”

Their five recommendations:
1. Spend time with people you like
2. Spend time on activities that energize and please you
3. Enjoy thinking about pleasant events, such as planning an upcoming vacation or remembering a great time
4. Expand your time by living in the moment, not the future
5. Be aware that happiness changes over time, and be ready to adapt

The list is simple yet challenging (even if you ignore the inherent contradiction in #3 and #4). For most of us, some money is a necessity. The common thinking is that "money can't buy happiness"--which seems solid. Some new thoughts on this topic appeared in the New York Times this weekend, in an opinion article titled Don't Indulge. Be Happy.

The authors agree that having enough money to live comfortably is equated with happiness, but that more money is not linked to more happiness. They put the cap at $75K (while their research no doubt holds the details, the Times piece does not delve into whether this is per person or for a family of 4--or whether it's enough in Peoria or Westchester).

The main question I have: Can money buy time?

It often seems like it can, such as hiring help with household chores or an assistant at the office. In theory, having more money could liberate a lot of time. Perhaps for some people it does. I haven’t had that experience yet. Flush times seem to come with more responsibilities and challenges alongside the expansion in helpful employees, toys, and vacations. Maybe even more money would help, but somehow I doubt it.

On the other hand, my multi-generational mini-yoga practice was a clear winner. In 15 minutes of free time (double-entendre intended), my son and I shared each other’s company, enjoyed an activity, and lived in the moment—and definitely emerged happier at the end. Clearly, we’ll be happily anticipating more mat sessions.

What about the other 23.75 hours?

I love to work, and would do it even if I won the lottery. That fits the study parameters, but not every work environment is a joy. From my experience, I think Mary has tapped the answer in her desire to create a work environment that, well, works.

The study authors found that two major factors in people’s happiness scores were having a “best friend” at work and a boss they liked. If you haven’t had the pleasure of having both at some point in your career, I can attest to the positive power they grant in making each day better.

It pays to weigh these factors when selecting a job—right up there with the salary, title, responsibilities, and career trajectory. I now regularly advise new college grads to value a mentor above a title and salary. A helpful boss is a better gamble in the long-run and leads to fewer frustrations daily.

If you’re stuck in a job that isn’t making you happy, do whatever you can to improve the situation. Work LinkedIn and at some point you will find another job. Find some way to squeeze in coursework to change your path over time (check out the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at NYU, which has quick, inexpensive courses, some of which you can take online).

If money (the recession and/or your bills) conspire to keep you where you are for now, capture some time. Try 15 minutes of yoga or some other quick break with someone you love, or at least daydream. Research shows you’ll be happier for it.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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