This month’s challenge is to live a happier life. Here’s where I got started.
Am I unhappy?
To start with happiness might seem like I’m unhappy, that’s not true. It’s a bit closer to Am I content with the foods I eat?
I like to eat pizza and chili. Somedays I think I could eat those two things all the time, but not really. Those things would get boring and their allure would spoil. Instead I need to find more food options and to do that I have to start looking. One recent example is with my chili recipe. I formally used the seasoning packets that come premixed as ‘Chili’ or ‘Spicy Chili’ off the grocery store shelves. As I was looking at the ingredients one day, I realized all the spices in those little packages already lived happily in my cabinet. I opened my cabinet to find chili powder, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper lined up like little soldiers. I started mixing and remixing until I found an even better combination for my chili. The same with happiness.
Money does not bring happiness.
This oft repeated mantra seems to sprout from two types – those that seem to have a lot of money more money that you and those that have slightly money that you. Thankfully scientists have taken both types, and a many others, randomized them like fake snow in a snowglobe and found that money does not buy happiness – kinda.
What people need from money is an ability to meet the basic needs of life. Once you and I can afford a roof, a meal, and a good pair of Levi jeans we meet a happiness level. Generally this basic level is somewhere between $50K and $70K. That’s level one of income and that is important for happiness.
Once you get enough you may want to get more and if you do then we need to talk about a very important book – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
In this children’s book a young mouse shows up at a young boy’s home. The mouse asks only for a cookie, a small request for a small friend, and the boy complies. After the cookies though, the mouse needs a glass of milk to wash the cookie down, then a napkin to clean the milk from his face, then a trim of his whiskers which he noticed were out of place when he was cleaning his face, and on the story goes. This same happens with people when they start to buy more things.
One National Institute of Health article summarized it this way.
Material aspirations increase commensurately with income, and, as a result, one gets no nearer to or farther away from the attainment of one’s material goals, and well-being is unchanged
If you or I say that our lives would be better if only we had that new car or computer or the $500 Xbox for Christmas this year. It turns out though, the more we have, the more we want. We get our new things and then become used to them. This is called Hedonic Adaptation. The same article says:
An increase in income, and thus in the goods at one’s disposal, does not bring with it a lasting increase in happiness because of the negative effect on utility of hedonic adaptation and social comparison
We get used to things and they don’t become the panacea we hoped. Aaron Hillegass, an internet and programming pioneer had this to say about getting enough:
When you have Enough, the extra money means very little. I’ve been broke, and being broke sucks balls. Having Enough is awesome. How would I define “Enough”? Enough means that you can take a friend out to a nice lunch and not have to worry about how much it costs. I have hung out with a couple of billionaires—my experiences indicate that being a billionaire is just incrementally better than Enough. Thus, as you look at your future, the question should not be, “How can I become a billionaire?” You should ask, “Where can I get Enough?” Very few entrepreneurs have Enough; most of them eventually go get jobs.
We can’t buy things to bring us happiness, but we can spend money in two other ways that will make us happier, that post will come later. What can you do, right now, to become happier? Get married.
Marriage does bring happiness.
I always enjoy reading information like this. Whenever scientific research can declare that something I’m doing is good for me, I’m happy. If there was research that said mint chocolate chip icecream is as good for you as broccoli, then that too would be something I’d happily continue doing. For now though, I have to settle for marriage making me happier.
Before we get to marriage though, we need to understand that happy people all around us can influence our happiness. Imagine the network of people you hang out with, live by, and work with. Imagine they hold a pint of paint each day they see you – the happier people holding white, the least happy holding black. Imagine now that you have a bucket of paint that you carry along with you, in the opposite hand as your iPhone. As you go through each day, each person in your life adds their color to you. The more happy people you interact with, the happier you’ll be.
Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. (NIH Paper.)
The same paper says that friends or siblings living within a mile can increase happiness, so can spouses. Now we get to the good stuff – or at least the stuff that I’m happily doing already.
Throughout the adult life cycle, however, the gap in average happiness persists between those who are currently married and those who are not.
Researches surveyed 1500 people each year for 28 years and found that married people are happier than unmarried ones. This is true for people who also get re-married and it doesn’t matter how a marriage ends – divorce, widowhood, separation – those people removed from marriage are less happy.
Dan Gilbert might have a theory that underlies this. In a 2004 TEDTalks Gilbert explained research that his team at Harvard was doing. Their conclusion was this, if people can choose something and know that it’s the only one of those things they get, they are happier. If people can choose something and know that there might be a chance of switching it out later, they are less happy with their choice. As humans we overrate how much we really want flexibility of choice in the future.
The key to a happy marriage is to understand that this is the only person in the world like this.
Gilbert doesn’t’ make the connection to marriage but I will. I’ve always viewed my marriage as it. Full stop. I’d have more luck boarding a plane, persuading the pilots to let me fly it to Jamaica, and land on a dirt runway than have my marriage end through divorce or separation. Combining this mindset with the research, that’s the key to a happy marriage.
Am I happier yet?
One problem with this analysis is that I’m the subject and experimenter. I’m playing two different hands of cards and I want to say that yes, learning all this about happiness is making me happier. Instead I’ll say maybe. I already felt happy before beginning this month. One immediate takeaway I’ve appreciated was Matthieu Ricard’s quote about anger being our own mental creation, he said, “if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun.”
The effect of money has been something I was also expecting. I’ve been buying fewer and fewer things this year and have not felt any less happy, in fact I’ve felt happier. In the example of not buying books, I’ve found that visiting my public library has made me happier. The librarians smile to everyone who comes in and right now there is a wonderful Christmas tree display throughout the building.
Is being married making me happier – that’s a tricky one to answer too. My wife and I were agreeing the other day that dating again would be quite hard and that we were both happy to have found each other. The tricky part comes comparing life before marriage and life after because it’s like comparing two different people. The younger me wanted some things, the now me wants different things. Luckily for me, I have what a want, a happy marriage.
Where to next?
Right now I’m reading about two ways to spend money that do make you happier. I’m also thinking about smiles, jokes, and humor. I also want to think about how Christmas and religion might figure into happiness as well as how my children fit. That’s probably enough for now.