I think a lot about happiness — about my own happiness and about the happiness of those around me. Knowing my interest in the subject, Kris forwarded a recent column from David Brooks of The New York Times about what he terms “the Sandra Bullock trade”:

Two things happened to Sandra Bullock [in March]. First, she won an Academy Award for best actress. Then came the news reports claiming that her husband is an adulterous jerk. So the philosophic question of the day is: Would you take that as a deal? Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?

Brooks uses this question as a jumping-off point to discuss research into happiness. He notes that you’d be crazy to make the trade. “If you have a successful marriage,” he writes, “it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy.”

Brooks says that the research into money and happiness is complicated. (Although from my own experience, it isn’t really — the research seems pretty clear.) As I’ve mentioned before, money does make people happier, but its effects are much more pronounced on the poor than on the rich. If you earn $20,000 a year and experience a $5,000 windfall, that’s going to bring more joy to your life than if you earn $200,000 and get the same $5,000 windfall. Brooks also mentions that lottery winners don’t experience lasting happiness, either.

Note: I’m trying not to mention my book in every post I make, but I can’t help myself here: I think this topic is so important that I tackle in the very first chapter of Your Money: The Missing Manual.

The New York Times piece continues by noting that although money doesn’t always bring a lot of happiness, personal relationships do. Brooks writes:

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

So, what do you think of Brooks’ question? Would you exchange a professional triumph for a severe personal blow? Or, perhaps a better question is what sorts of trades are you willing to make for money or happiness? What trades have you made in the past? Which have been worth it? Which do you regret?

Example: Because I bought a bunch of Stuff on credit during the 1990s, I couldn’t travel the world with my friend Sparky. I essentially traded this experience for videogames and computer parts. Now Sparky is dead, and I’ll never have a chance to make that sort of trip with him again. Because of this, today I’m willing to trade time, money, and Stuff to spend time with friends. That’s one reason I made the trip to Chicago with my friend Chris last week.

Note: A couple of commenters have noted — correctly — that Brooks sets up a false trade. That is, Bullock didn’t actually trade one of these for the other; they just happened. Still, I think it’s an interesting hypothetical question with real-life applications. We do make these trades all the time. I traded four months of my life and gained 20 pounds in order to write a book. I’m not sure I got the better end of that bargain.

[The New York Times: The Sandra Bullock trade]

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