The Scientists Speak: money and “stuff” do not make us happy

Check out this review of a new book: “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The message of the book seems to be similar to the popular “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert, which I recommend.

The research and conclusions from these books is very compelling and more constructive, I think, than many of these self-help books that constantly make the bestseller lists. In this book, Lyubomirsky shows that a lot of our happiness is genetic — we are genetically predisposed to be happy or to be gloomy. But, there’s still hope for those predisposed to gloominess – we can affect at least 50% of our happiness through our own actions.

When it comes to money, beyond a certain level of income and material comfort, additional money does not make us happy. Many people actually become less happy as they climb the income ladder because they are more inclined to compare their success to that of other people. Have you ever found out that one of your colleagues, someone who does essentially the same work you do, makes more money than you? This happened to me shortly after I started my job at the bank about a year and a half ago. I found an offer letter sitting on the fax machine. The person was hired at the same level as I was and would be doing essentially the same thing – but her offer was 11% higher than mine. I was angry and depressed for the rest of the day; mad at myself for not negotiating better, resentful of my colleague, etc., etc. It’s ridiculous that seeing this letter would take me down from my good feelings about my new job but it did all the same.

As I see it, one great irony of our culture is that so many of the things we strive for actually make us unhappy. We run up lots of credit card debt buying stuff. The fancy new TV probably makes us less happy… we would be better off if we didn’t watch so much and instead spent the time doing activities with people we like. Many people work jobs they hate just so they can afford to consume a lot of junk they don’t need and doesn’t make them happy anyway. In my opinion, you shouldn’t spend the majority of your life doing something that isn’t fulfilling or working with people you can’t stand.

I think it actually takes conscientious effort to live by the lessons of these books. Living in NYC, it can be tough not to constantly compare your economic situation with everyone else’s. I have stayed sane – and actually prospered – in this environment by choosing to live below my means and save money. To accomplish this on a modest income in NYC is challenging. I know many people who make more money than I do but actually save less. These people often have huge credit card debt that they are unwilling to pay down. It might work for them, but that lifestyle would make me anxious and miserable.

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