The Best Things In Life Aren’t Things

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74I think it’s safe to say that we all want to be happy. We seek out relationships and careers that make us feel happy and fulfilled. We have our secret (or not so secret) bucket lists of all the things that will make us happy. But what is happiness?

Defining happiness is elusive. Researchers study it. Some scientists believe that the search for happiness is a sign of a healthy society. But happiness manifests uniquely in each of us. Ultimately we choose what makes us happy. But do we always choose well? Does what we think will make us happy actually succeed in advancing our happiness? When you ask people about their pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in their life, they often focus on lifestyle. A nice house, a new car. If only I made more money, I’d be happy.

I know when I’m feeling down, a shopping trip to the local mall is hard to resist. And we know that comparing ourselves to others results in “keeping up with the Joneses”, which ends in dissatisfaction and unhappiness. There is always someone better off than you are to compare yourself to. Are you feeling frustrated that you can’t afford that beautiful new handbag your friend just carried into the office?  Do you long for the new sports car your colleague just parked next to your old car in the lot? Or do you feel that you would be happy if you could just pay off all your credit cards?

Psychologists have suggested that too many people focus their happiness pursuit on acquiring possessions, believing that since physical objects last longer, the happiness will as well. In fact, the opposite is true. Research has shown some interesting facts about happiness as it relates to possessions. Most of the happiness actually comes from the act of purchasing.  Once an item is purchased, and shown off a few times, the satisfaction wears off quite quickly, and we need another object to get it back. Research has also shown that the rise in happiness that comes with increased salary levels off sharply at around $75,000. There is also ample evidence that extreme wealth, especially sudden wealth, like a lottery win, introduces significant stress and burdens that decrease happiness.

So what does bring us happiness? Research consistently shows that we achieve higher and more persistent levels of happiness from our experience and our relationships that we can ever get from procuring more stuff. This is great news. By remembering this fact, we have two powerful strategies to improve our happiness. First, many experiences are free and available to all. Take the time to strengthen relationships – having fun with our friends and family increases our happiness. Volunteer in your community – helping others improves our happiness. When deciding how to spend your time, evaluate your options in terms of how they will contribute to the happiness and well-being of yourself, your friends, and your family. The second decision-making strategy says that when deciding where to spend your money, focus on experiences rather than things. Learn a new skill, travel, attend the theater or a sporting event.

Why do experiences bring us happiness? Experiences engage our brain and connect us to our world more than objects do. Also, while we rarely daydream about our past purchases, we often relive our experiences, both as memories and as stories we share with others. When my husband and I travel, we long ago stopped buying silly cheap souvenirs. They ended up in some dusty old box taking up space. Then, on a trip to Iceland we purchased a piece of original art. We had never purchased original art from the artist before. While it was technically an object, it was the experience that we remembered and talked about over and over. Now, when we travel, we try to attend arts and crafts venues. We enjoy this activity together; in addition, if we do buy a new piece, it hangs in our home and provides a frequent reminder of our experiences. On the other hand, my mother in law loves to buy magnets. But she displays them on her wall, and she can remember where she bought each and every one. So the point is not to never buy anything, but to buy mindfully, and focus on the experiences first.

Practicing gratitude is another way to use experience to maximize happiness. Instead of “keeping up with the Joneses”, practice gratitude for what you have, and pause for a moment in thought for those struggling, and who have less. Regularly examining all the wonderful relationships and experiences that you have in your life lets you experience them again, adding to your happiness column.

So how can you “buy” happiness? By maximizing life’s experiences rather than looking for happiness in a shopping bag.