The psychology of happiness: 13 steps to a better life

happy girl and father

We think we know what will make us happy, but we don’t. Many of us believe that money will make us happy, but it won’t. Except for the very poor, money cannot buy happiness. Instead of dreaming of vast wealth, we should dream of close friends and healthy bodies and meaningful work.

The Psychology of Happiness

Several years ago, James Montier, a “global equity strategist”, took a break from investing in order to publish a brief overview of existing research into the psychology of happiness [PDF]. Montier learned that happiness comprises three components:

  • About 50% of individual happiness comes from a genetic set point. That is, we’re each predisposed to a certain level of happiness. Some of us are just naturally more inclined to be cheery than others.
  • About 10% of our happiness is due to our circumstances. Our age, race, gender, personal history, and, yes, wealth, only make up about one-tenth of our happiness.
  • The remaining 40% of an individual’s happiness seems to be derived from intentional activity, from “discrete actions or practices that people can choose to do”.

If we have no control over our genetic “happy point,” and if we have little control over our circumstances, then it makes sense to focus on those things that we can do to make ourselves happy. According to Montier’s paper, these activities include sex, exercise, sleep, and close relationships.

What does not bring happiness? Money, and the pursuit of happiness for its own sake. “A vast array of individuals seriously over-rate the importance of money in making themselves, and others, happy,” Montier writes. “Study after study from psychology shows that money doesn’t equal happiness.”

The Happiness Paradox

Writing in The Washington Post last June, Shankar Vedantam described recent research into this subject. If the United States is generally wealthier than it was thirty or forty years ago, then why aren’t people happier? Economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California believes that part of the problem is the hedonic treadmill: once we reach a certain level of wealth, we want more. We’re never satisfied. From Vedantam’s article:

Easterlin attributes the phenomenon of happiness levels not keeping pace with economic gains to the fact that people’s desires and expectations change along with their material fortunes. Where an American in 1970 may have once dreamed about owning a house, he or she might now dream of owning two. Where people once dreamed of buying a new car, they now dream of buying a luxury model.

“People are wedded to the idea that more money will bring them more happiness,” Easterlin said. “When they think of the effects of more money, they are failing to factor in the fact that when they get more money they are going to want even more money. When they get more money, they are going to want a bigger house. They never have enough money, but what they do is sacrifice their family life and health to get more money.”

The irony is that health and the quality of personal relationships are among the most potent predictors of whether people report they are happy — and they are often the two things people sacrifice in their pursuit of greater wealth.

Why aren’t rich people happier? Perhaps it’s because many of them are workaholics, because they’re more focused on money than on the things that would bring them joy. A brief companion piece to The Washington Post story notes that researchers have found that “being wealthy is often a powerful predictor that people spend less time doing pleasurable things, and more time doing compulsory things and feeling stressed.”

In general, rich people aren’t much happier than those of us in the middle class. Yes, money can buy happiness if it elevates you from poverty, but beyond that the benefits are minimal. So why do so many people believe that money will make things better?

Stumbling on Happiness

In 2006, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert published Stumbling on Happiness, a book about our inability to predict what will really make us happy. Here is is a 22-minute video of a presentation Gilbert made at TED 2004, in which he compresses his ideas into bite-sized chunks.

Gilbert says that because humans can plan for the future, we naturally want to structure our lives in such a way that we are happy, both now and later. But how do we know what will make us happy? We don’t. In fact, we’re surprisingly bad at predicting what will bring us joy. Gilbert asks:

Which future would you prefer? One in which you win the lottery? Or one in which you become paraplegic? Which would make you happier? […] A year after losing their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

The problem is impact bias, the tendency to overestimate the “hedonic impact” of future events. Put another way, the things that we think will make us happy usually don’t make us as happy as we think they will. Winning the lottery isn’t a panacea. Having an affair with your hot new co-worker won’t be as thrilling as you imagine. And losing a leg isn’t the end of the world.

It turns out that humans are able to synthesize happiness. Many people look outside themselves for fulfillment; they expect to find it in things, or in relationships, or in large bank accounts. But true happiness comes from within. True happiness comes when we learn to be content with what we have.

13 Steps to a Better Life

What does all this mean to you? If money won’t bring you happiness, what will? How can you stop making yourself miserable and start learning to love life? According to my research, these are the thirteen actions most likely to encourage happiness:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others. Financially, physically, and socially, comparing yourself to others is a trap. You will always have friends who have more money than you do, who can run faster than you can, who are more successful in their careers. Focus on your own life, on your own goals.
  2. Foster close relationships. People with five or more close friends are more apt to describe themselves as happy than those with fewer.
  3. Have sex. Sex, especially with someone you love, is consistently ranked as a top source of happiness. A long-term loving partnership goes hand-in-hand with this.
  4. Get regular exercise. There’s a strong tie between physical health and happiness. Anyone who has experienced a prolonged injury or illness knows just how emotionally devastating it can be. Eat right, exercise, and take care of our body. (And read Get Fit Slowly!)
  5. Obtain adequate sleep. Good sleep is an essential component of good health. When you’re not well-rested, your body and your mind do not operate at peak capacity. Your mood suffers. (Read more in my brief guide to better sleep.)
  6. Set and pursue goals. I believe that the road to wealth is paved with goals. More than that, the road to happiness is paved with goals. Continued self-improvement makes life more fulfilling.
  7. Find meaningful work. There are some who argue a job is just a job. I believe that fulfilling work is more than that — it’s a vocation. It can take decades to find the work you were meant to do. But when you find it, it can bring added meaning to your life.
  8. Join a group. Those who are members of a group, like a church congregation, experience greater happiness. But the group doesn’t have to be religious. Join a book group. Meet others for a Saturday morning bike ride. Sit in at the knitting circle down at the yarn shop.
  9. Don’t dwell on the past. I know a guy who beats himself up over mistakes he’s made before. Rather than concentrate on the present (or, better yet, on the future), he lets the past eat away at his happiness. Focus on the now.
  10. Embrace routine. Research shows that although we believe we want variety and choice, we’re actually happier with limited options. It’s not that we want no choice at all, just that we don’t want to be overwhelmed. Routines help limit choices. They’re comfortable and familiar and, used judiciously, they can make us happy.
  11. Practice moderation. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It’s okay to indulge yourself on occasion — just don’t let it get out of control. Addictions and compulsions can ruin lives.
  12. Be grateful. It’s no accident that so many self-help books encourage readers to practice gratitude. When we regularly take time to be thankful for the things we have, we appreciate them more. We’re less likely to take them for granted, and less likely to become jealous of others.
  13. Help others. Over and over again, studies have shown that altruism is one of the best ways to boost your happiness. Sure, volunteering at the local homeless shelter helps, but so too does just being nice in daily life.

Remember: True wealth is not about money. True wealth is about relationships, about good health, and about continued self-improvement.

Related >> Is it More Important to be Rich or to be Happy?

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There are 105 comments to "The psychology of happiness: 13 steps to a better life".

  1. ChristianPF says 25 August 2008 at 06:21

    Great post JD – I agree with your point that happiness comes from contentment. I found that in my life a lot of my unhappiness came from my lusting after material things. As I have been growing out of that phase and been a bit more content with what I have I suddenly enjoy life a bit more.

  2. Sam says 25 August 2008 at 06:22

    I agree that money/being rich does not equal happiness.

    But being debt free (except for the mortgage) and having a healthy emergency fund and a spending plan has increased our happiness.

  3. J.D. says 25 August 2008 at 06:35

    Great point, Sam, and that’s something I wanted mention (but didn’t have room for). For me, getting rid of my debt made a *huge* difference to my peace of mind. I suspect this is true for many people. I also suspect that after that, the psychological “returns” from wealth diminish…

  4. Atticus says 25 August 2008 at 06:48

    Thanks J.D., that was a great post. And the video was excellent.

  5. elisabeth says 25 August 2008 at 06:53

    I’d suggest replacing “have sex” with “make love.” Even totally committed couples may find that here are times in life when for one reason or another sex isn’t possible, but even in those times you can continue to “make love,” that is have affectionate and tender times, the closeness of a love relationship, whether or not you include activities that would be recognized as “sex.”

  6. Soapdish says 25 August 2008 at 06:54

    Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it sure can pay off a lot of unhappiness.

  7. Amber says 25 August 2008 at 06:54

    I love this post and the video. Thanks for putting this together.

  8. seawallrunner says 25 August 2008 at 07:05

    thank you JD for an excellent article. I remember the wise words of Rabbi Hyman Schachtel: “Happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you have”. Wiser words were seldom spoken.

  9. Shanel Yang says 25 August 2008 at 07:05

    It’s amazing how some people come out of the most tragic situations and still find something positive in it, while other can barely handle the slightest disappointments. It must be predisposition to a large part. However, we can train ourself to become more positive with our self thoughts and by choosing more positive environments and people in our lives. Here’s “30 Statements for Great Relationships” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/04/15/30-statements-for-great-relationships/

  10. Pooja Sood says 25 August 2008 at 07:10

    very appropriate and precise.

  11. Wesley says 25 August 2008 at 07:26

    Great article! I really enjoyed this one. I managed to pay off all debt (including mortgage) a year ago, and you’re right…there’s certainly a diminishing return on material gain past that point, at least for me.

    My main priority lately has been to find more meaning/happiness in my work and more contentment at home.

    I’ll check out the various article links throughout the day today. This was extremely appropriate for the things I’ve been thinking about lately. Thanks!

  12. Mo Money says 25 August 2008 at 07:30

    This is a good post! Thank you this is a keeper!

  13. April Dykman says 25 August 2008 at 07:35

    I like that you post these kinds of articles. Money isn’t all about which IRA to open or how to budget, after all.

    I very much believe what was said by Montier. Some people, like my husband, are just naturally happy. It runs in his family. I’ve seen the tiny house near the Mexican border in which they lived for several years–no AC, two rooms for four people. I grew up in a lower-middle class home, where we had a house, two vehicles, no worries about food being on the table, and I even had some fancy designer stuff that not all kids had, but my mom would remark that she was tired of being “poor.” My grandmother is naturally unhappy, my mom only slightly less so, and I think I’m inclined to be unhappy, too, but I’m trying to fight genetics.

    It’s something I really work on, and in doing so and seeing my husband’s example, I’ve become much happier. I need to work on fostering more close relationships, joining a group, and finding more meaningful work. All things to think about.

  14. guinness416 says 25 August 2008 at 07:35

    Wow, great post JD. I look forward to digging into the video and other links.

  15. Someone says 25 August 2008 at 07:36

    Rather than saying the benefits of more money on happiness “are minimal”, I’d say that they are minimal AFTER capping out at a certain point.

    Being able to make rent every month is a HUGE improvement in happiness over wondering if you are going to be out on the street. Knowing you have adequate medical coverage is a HUGE improvement in happiness over wondering if your world will fall apart if you break your arm. Being able to buy healthy, nutritious food is a HUGE improvement in happiness over wondering where your next meal is coming from.

    But after the basics are covered, it kind of caps out. Someone might expect the Lexus to make them happier than the Honda Accord, but it rarely does in any substantial or lasting way.

  16. Mark Nelson says 25 August 2008 at 07:46

    Being grateful. After reading The Secret I found a gratitude rock that I keep in my pocket.

    Sometimes I think that sounds stupid but when I get stressed or someone or something bugs me I grab that rock and think of something that I am grateful for. Changes my outlook instantly.

    If I am grateful for someone or something than I feel good.

  17. Michael Miles says 25 August 2008 at 08:04

    “True happiness comes when we learn to be content with what we have.”

    Happiness is a choice. I think it really is that simple.

  18. Jessica says 25 August 2008 at 08:18

    Great post today, you have definitely been peaking my interest more than usual lately. Money certainly does not buy happiness, at least not in the long-run.

    There were a couple of items on your list that I never even considered to be importance in relation to happiness, mainly the embracing routine. I always thought that it was best to always “mix-it-up” and try new things. Perhaps I will have to change my way of thinking on that one.

    But I don’t think that comparing myself to others is always a bad thing. Sometimes doing a comparison will help to make goals for ourselves. I think that as long as you do not aspire to be just like someone else, it can be a good thing to make reasonable comparisons.

  19. Tziporah says 25 August 2008 at 08:26

    Thanks, J.D., for this topic. I applaud the wisdom in your words, even though I am someone who doesn’t have much money.

    On Saturday I promised myself to make the best with what I have and to stop obsessing over the opportunities I could not and can not get access to.

    When I was just out of college I was disabled for a while and unable to work. It looked like my life was over. My health improved, I took things one step at a time, and while I’ve never made much money, I’ve had many good adventures.

    Right now I can meet my basic needs, but because I’m close to 60-years-old, I’m not likely to see a huge change in my debt-fee but low resource financial picture.

    And I’m finally coming around to agreeing with #10 – Embrace Routine. I found that I was spending a lot of time on tasks at home, yet wasn’t getting things done, and didn’t have time for fun. Now I know I can schedule time when it’s ok not to focus on responsibility and to give myself permission to relax.

    I will use your list as I move forward this week.

  20. Tina Vaziri says 25 August 2008 at 08:43

    I’m a regular reader and this post really moved me today. I sent it on to several other people to read. Just wanted to say thanks and great work!!

  21. Saravanan says 25 August 2008 at 08:43

    I do agree that Money is not that important to be happy but when basic needs are in question then definitely MONEY is!

    When I wrote that article, I was only thinking about the sufferings the fellow Indians go through to make a living and I was not bothered about being happy.

    But at the end of the day after fulfilling your basic needs, all that matters is “Being Happy”.

  22. Michele says 25 August 2008 at 09:00

    I think money brings happiness by creating choice. Anyone with enough cash to consciously choose a meaningful life activity is probably happy. It’s the people stuck in a job who are often the most miserable.

    No matter what the price tag, I often find that knowing I can choose to do something is just as satisfying as actually doing it.

  23. Dave says 25 August 2008 at 09:16

    Wonderful post.

    Getting rich slowly can/should mean getting rich with the things in life that bring true happiness.

    Nice change from money talk.

  24. partgypsy says 25 August 2008 at 09:32

    There are certain things that reliably improve my mood/happiness: going for a walk, hanging out with my best friend (who has a different but somehow complementary outlook to life than mine), making my kids laugh, personal time with hubby, and number one working on a creative project (comics). Money doesn’t really have alot to do with it. However if I’m unhappy I’m more likely to worry and be preoccupied about money or all the things money can change.

    That’s why I’m glad you have these articles, that even for us readers it’s good to take a break from all the money oriented topics.

  25. PBJ says 25 August 2008 at 09:35

    Good post. Especially like the part about being grateful for what you have. The ‘attitude of gratitude’ is a familiar theme in our family, and I think adds to our overall happiness and contentment significantly.

  26. Roger says 25 August 2008 at 10:18

    I guess that I’m a little confused by the goals suggestion. What if I set a goal of wanting a really fancy, expensive car. Now, I have to work more to buy the car, but will I actually be happier from buying the car? Also, shouldn’t I be grateful for the car that I already have, if it runs OK?

    I guess you have to establish the “right” goals.

  27. J.D. says 25 August 2008 at 10:23

    @Roger
    I think that the goals that researchers mean are personal goals like “publish a book” or “climb Mt. Hood” or “build a deck”. Some of these will involve spending money, sure, but most of them are about self-improvement and the development of personal values. I have a list of financial goals (and intend to write about them soon, actually), but I never really think of them as part of my regular goals…

  28. Troy says 25 August 2008 at 10:25

    Regarding money, in choosing between having money or not having debt, I understand why not having debt has a much greater impact on happiness than having money.

    The value of money is in it’s possibilities and the choices it allows. Once basic needs are met, those choices diminish, so the value of money diminishes.

    However, debt is an obligation. It is a commitment. Eliminating obligations and commitments by paying off debt is lasting and freeing, like breaking out of handcuffs. Money is like the keys to those handcuffs.

    When you don’t have the handcuffs, you don’t care as much about the keys.

  29. Chett says 25 August 2008 at 10:41

    Jean Chatszky actually reported on this a few years ago citing that there is very little corralation between hapiness and money after the first $50,000. I just finished the book Happier, by Tal Ben Shahar. ( http://talbenshahar.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=38&Itemid=52 ) He is a professor with the most popular class at Harvard, that deals with happiness. He states that nearly 50% of the students there deal with depression. The book is a great read with some very applicable execises. I dealt with depression and anxiety for nearly two years, and I had no real reasons for being in the state of mind I was in, and have finally overcome it. I am finally beginning to enjoy the life God has blessed me with.

  30. Kira says 25 August 2008 at 10:52

    Great post! I always wondered why I seem to be happier on a day-to-day business than most people (so much so that people sometimes remark on it). I didn’t know that my genetic setpoint may be higher than others. Those are great tips for happiness!

  31. KHoward says 25 August 2008 at 11:23

    Thanks “Troy” for your analogy of debt being like handcuffs. I work at a financial institution, and it amazes me how many people will continue to borrow and borrow for things that they can’t afford, and then wonder why they can’t make ends meet. It’s hard to help them understand that their “cuffs” are getting tighter and tighter. I also have parents with a huge “entitlement” problem – they think that they deserve everything in the world and that as long as they can afford the monthly payment, they’re ok. This is a great post, one I think everyone could benefit from. I think we can all see how many unhappy people there are right now.

  32. Mark Alan Effinger says 25 August 2008 at 11:29

    Oh, how true!

    I’ve been on both sides of the coin (sic!) and have learned to be happy regardless…

    That said, because I get enjoyment immense enjoyment from the work we do here at my company, work isn’t work “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings true around here).

    I have found that the best way to experience happiness is to get outside yourself, find a passionate mission, and live it.

    Rich, poor… it’s no longer about you (me). It’s about us…

    Great, awesome post. This baby is going viral.

    Grace & Peace,
    Mark Alan Effinger
    http://www.RichContent.com

  33. Sarah says 25 August 2008 at 12:02

    Ha, I was going to bring up Tal Ben-Shahar too, but Chett beat me to it. I took Tal’s class through the Harvard Extension School last year, which is open enrollment, meaning anyone can take it. Even though it’s an online class (they video taped the Harvard undergraduate lectures), there are in-person and phone sections to discuss and apply the material to your life. My boyfriend and I took it together, and it’s helped a lot in giving us tools to reframe difficulties.

    Obviously it’s not as cheap as just the book, but it’s less expensive than therapy! And you know how great teachers make the material from the textbook come alive? Even though Tal wrote the textbook, watching his lectures is more like watching a good TV show than sitting in class, it’s that much fun. I highly recommend it, and I might take it again. To be transparent, though, I get tuition reimbursement from my employer, so it doesn’t cost me full price.
    http://extension.harvard.edu/2008-09/courses/psyc.jsp#e-1504

  34. Kent Thune says 25 August 2008 at 12:19

    I suspect James Montier took “time off” of his behavioral finance writing to write on the subject of happiness because the latter is selling more books than the former.

    Personally, I believe the “happiness” books are mostly useless (with excpetion of “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert).

    The rewards of contentment have been known for thousands of years. Montier and the host of psychologists and neuroscientists are simply “proving” with science what Lau-tzu was saying 2500 years ago…

    “Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~ Lao Tzu

  35. David C. says 25 August 2008 at 13:01

    Great post. After all these years, I have finally figured out that the only possession that brings me happiness is that clump of grey matter rattling around in my skull.

  36. Sandy says 25 August 2008 at 13:05

    Thanks for the post. I was just talking about this with my boyfriend trying to verbalize my philosophy about being content with life and how happiness as we define it today seems too overly focused only on material wealth. I also believe it’s true that beyond providing for the basics where money does really matter (this includes a sense of security), that the marginal degree of happiness that the next object gives you is minimal. If you have a closet of 100 pairs of shoes, that 101st pair will not give you more satisfaction in the long term. I think we are at a tipping point culturally in realizing this and it is about time.

  37. RetiredAt47 says 25 August 2008 at 13:17

    Several years ago I read a book “Good Mood” by Julian L. Simon. I don’t remember all the details, but what I came away with a very simple solution – if you can’t be happier with what you have, lower your expectations (of course this is very simplified). He talked a lot about a fraction where happiness is the numerator and expectations are the denominator. Basically to improve your overall happiness ratio, you either increase your numerator or lower your denominator.

  38. Mira says 25 August 2008 at 13:24

    Money never make anybody happy,
    but they make people comfortable.
    Comfort make more joy, less stres, and so on.
    I thinking that is more happy people betwine
    poor people, than anhappy betwen rich people.

    Thanks to author for so nice post.

    Mira

  39. odd lot says 25 August 2008 at 13:46

    Hey JD,
    It’s already been said many times in the comments, but thanks for a great post. The economy is brutal right now and it’s making a lot of people pretty unhappy. We’re all feeling pretty beat down with a recession, high inflation, portfolio losses, fear of job loss (or actual job loss if you’re one of the unlucky 5%) and crumbling real estate values.

    I’m an optimist by nature, but even I’m feeling the strain lately, we need some good news! This was a fun read today, and the timing couldn’t be better.
    Cheers,
    Odd Lot @ Money-and-Investing.com

  40. deepali says 25 August 2008 at 13:47

    I’ve been focusing lately on my goals and on my own personal contentment. I am definitely happier, and I notice I’m also more easily able to adapt and react to things around me. No more flying off the handle. 🙂

    It’s funny to read this post today – I posted about some of this last week, and I noticed a few others did too. Something in the water? 🙂

    And a big YES to Dan Gilbert’s book. Really made me rethink things!

  41. Sean Clancy says 25 August 2008 at 14:45

    While everyone’s done a “happiness” post this is the most concise and relevant piece I’ve read. I felt “stuck” a few years back, read all the books on happiness but still wasn’t happy. Then I came across a book called The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth, and learned about the difference between happiness and luminousity. I highly recommend her new book, Mastering Life’s Energies to discover how to be more than happy, to be luminously happy.

    Of the thirteen steps, setting and pursuing goals is the one that helped me create more moments of luminousity. Instead of goals in the traditional notion, use a the slightly modified Webster’s definition of a goal as ‘an area in which play is directed to achieve a desired effort with clarity, focus, ease and grace.’ Goals become fun! With an achievable goal, life becomes a game worth playing.
    I’m so grateful for this post.

  42. Sara at On Simplicity says 25 August 2008 at 15:24

    I love this! All I could think when I finished was, “God, I wish I’d written this!”

    I’m firmly in the “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can give you a damn good running start” camp. Still, I agree with those saying that there’s a limit to how much money contributes to happiness once you’re out of debt and making the rent easily.

    After all, when thinking of a wealthy friend, I can’t imagine him being any different regardless of income. Whether that’s a choice or that’s his set 50%–that’s the debate for me.

  43. leigh says 25 August 2008 at 15:26

    i think at different stages, we need different things to keep us happy. during some earlier rough times, my husband brought home a parrot to keep me company after surgeries. he hit the nail on the head with that one, she was instrumental in my recovery. talking to my husband on the phone while he’s away makes me very happy. a good night’s sleep never feels better than after i’ve been sleep deprived and overworked for a while.

  44. Faculties says 25 August 2008 at 15:36

    I also want to mention the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. It complements many of the assertions in this entry, backed up by science. The website is http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/.
    (I should say I’m not connected to the book or the author in any way; I just found it helpful.)

  45. Lorena says 25 August 2008 at 15:51

    “A year after losing their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.” If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. That supports the 10% of happiness comes from circumstances theory.

    I would add, however, that sex within the bonds of marriage is the only way that sex can contribute to true happiness (not just temporary pleasure).

    Great post. I will share this one for sure.

  46. Uncommonadvice says 25 August 2008 at 16:01

    To me the whole point of watching the pennies is because I know I am happier when I have money in the bank. Therefore, taking things to the n’th degree, this is one of the best pf posts you’ll ever come across.

  47. Kevin says 25 August 2008 at 18:33

    I am conflicted between learning to be happy with what I’ve got and being ambitious. I don’t think these two have to be mutually exclusive, but I have a hard time accepting things as they are now (although I live a comfortable life).

    Does anyone else have this problem?

    Is it safe to say that everyone reading this blog has great ambitions, yet is ultimately seeking happiness?

    Any helpful advice is appreciated. Thanks in advance!

  48. Big Winner says 25 August 2008 at 20:08

    This is one of your best posts! Montier’s work seems to reflect the findings of Sonya Lyubomirsky and Neal Roese – other psychologists who have touched on happiness and wrote some great books.

  49. Writer's Coin says 25 August 2008 at 20:21

    Great post! I’m going to do a personal assessment of how I’m doing with each one of these. You have them all spot on.

  50. Aaron says 25 August 2008 at 20:34

    Before I register my complaint, I just want to note that I enjoy this site quite a bit. I visit GRS at least once a day.

    However, I only post comments when something raises my ire. So here it is.

    I take issue with the Gilbert quote JD uses: “Which future would you prefer? One in which you win the lottery? Or one in which you become paraplegic? Which would make you happier? […] A year after losing their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.”

    I assure you that I’d rather win the lottery than become a paraplegic. If anyone on this site claims otherwise, I have to question their honesty. If it is true that paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners (I have no idea how one could actually make such a comparative measurement of happiness), it is a testament to the ability of those who have lost the function of their limbs to find happiness in their new lifestyle–it is not a reason for thinking that losing the use of one’s legs is not a huge obstacle placed in the way of one’s happiness.

    Winning the lottery may not make you happy, but in most cases it would not be an obstacle to being happy. Losing the use of one’s legs sucks. The quote JD uses makes light of the suffering of those who have become paraplegics.

    That being said, I am on board with the main idea of the post. Yet, I think it is not a quest to be rich that thwarts the happiness of millions of us. Rather, it is the quest to insure against risk. Given good health and disability insurance and a retirement income, most of us would live very happy lives at modest income levels.

  51. J.D. says 25 August 2008 at 20:47

    Aaron, you make a good point, and in his book, Gilbert does a better job of exploring different concepts of happiness. One of the things he talks about is whether your concept of happiness is the same as mine. If all you’ve ever eaten is dirt, and you think you’re happy eating dirt, how do you really know that you’re happy? If you then taste chocolate cake, your happiness will decline because now you know dirt doesn’t taste as good.

    On the other hand, who is to say that the happiness of dirt-eaters is any less than the happiness of cake eaters? It’s a tough question, and Gilbert explores it at length in Stumbling on Happiness.

  52. shevy says 25 August 2008 at 21:48

    “Many of us believe that money will make us happy, but it won’t. Except for the very poor, money cannot buy happiness.”

    What money buys for both the poor and those living paycheque to paycheque (actually a pretty large segment of the population) is *security*.

    People equate feeling safe with feeling happy or content. And having enough money to weather an illness, a job loss or a car accident without being evicted, having your utilities turned off, bouncing cheques, having to put off medical or dental care, etc. is very, very important.

    That’s probably why being debt free feels so good and why several people think that the “happiness quotient” declines once they’re debt free and still accumulating money. The important part is getting to the point of being safe. Beyond that is nice but not as vital so the feeling of happiness or contentment is more fleeting.

  53. Sandy Naidu says 25 August 2008 at 22:29

    Loved the post…’Don’t dwell on the past’ is one of the key things…I used to do that a lot – still do some degree…

  54. Simon Hill says 25 August 2008 at 22:38

    Very thought provoking post J.D., many thanks. I have been witness recently to a marriage breakdown as a consequence of one partner’s wild spending and “hedonistic adaptation”. Even with a Porsche in the driveway and a Harley in the garage the chap is miserable still (and sadly can’t see why). The fact that he can’t afford either and is just making their financial situation worse just makes it harder to watch.

  55. plonkee says 26 August 2008 at 05:14

    I think meaningful work is important. But I don’t think it has to come from your main paid employment. I enjoy my job, and on the whole, I find it meaningful, but I also get meaning from my blogging and from some voluntary activities that I do.

    They are both work, in the sense that they are obligations, they require lots and lots of energy and they aren’t fun every minute of every day. They do contribute an immense amount of meaning to my life, and genuinely help me feel that I am making a difference, however small. This is something that’s important to me, whether I get paid for these activities or not.

  56. sb says 26 August 2008 at 05:24

    So how much do you make for writing blogs like this one? Happiness is masturbati0n, I’d rather evolve. Stick to the financial stuff, J.D., you’re way too good at it.

    🙂

  57. artist says 26 August 2008 at 06:44

    Outstanding article. Thank you. I also enjoyed reading everyone’s replies. If ever the phrase “food for thought” were appropriate, this is it. What nurtures our soul? Philosophers, theologians, & psychologists have been wrestling with this subject from day one.

  58. seawallrunner says 26 August 2008 at 06:45

    @Kevin – good question. “I am conflicted between learning to be happy with what I’ve got and being ambitious….I have a hard time accepting things as they are now (although I live a comfortable life). Does anyone else have this problem? Is it safe to say that everyone reading this blog has great ambitions, yet is ultimately seeking happiness?

    I am very happy about the life I’ve been given. I am grateful for the life I have built for myself and grateful to all who helped me (parents, teachers, friends, loved ones) reach the point at which I am right now. I love my friends, I am grateful for my health, I am grateful for the state of mind that I am in – whereby I can make healthy choices for myself. I am happy about having the ability to be *mindful* and not live on autopilot.

    But I am not satisfied. I am ambitious – I want for my company to entrench its relationships with current and future clients, I want to make more money next year, I want for my investments to grow, I want for my quality of life to improve even more.

    But I don’t expect these things to make me *happy*.

    My happiness is predicated on gratitude, mindfulness and appreciation. My ambition is predicated on enuring the situation that I am already in.

    It’s a fine line, I know. But for me it’s a visible, highly tangible line. Happiness: inside. Ambition – outside.

  59. Terri Karp says 26 August 2008 at 08:21

    plonkee in 55 is right. A few years ago I started volunteering for http://www.ethicalfocus.org/ – a nice organization that is local, but has progressive goals for society, the planet, etc.
    I not only gained a social community, but also have something to work towards beyond my own economic interests and entertainment.

  60. seeger says 26 August 2008 at 08:40

    great post, jd.

    I was going to comment yesterday, but realized that my comment was way too long
    I think what’s missing in all the self help & personal finance discussion of ‘how to be happier’ is the fact that we each only focus on individual happiness, and collective or societal happiness goes entirely unconsidered…
    What makes one person (or one small unit, say a family) much happier can often makes someone else unhappy…

  61. DC Portland says 26 August 2008 at 09:00

    JD – This is an excellent synopsis of the current thinking on happiness and money.

    I am currently a master of applied positive psychology (MAPP) student at the University of Pennsylvania. My focus is on the nexus of happiness (well-being) and sustainable living. Obviously, money plays big in this relationship. If people recognize the fact that over-consumption will not bring happiness, it will significantly reduce the over-extraction of valuable natural resources.

    I must say that your “13 steps to a better life” really nails the current findings in positive psychology. I strongly recommend to your readers that they MEMORIZE them.

    Finally, there considerable contraversy in the field about the happiness set-point. Many positive psychologists do not believe that it is true. At best, people have a happiness “set-range” as opposed to a “set point”. Much of the current intervention work has to do with helping people function at the top of their range.

  62. Kervin says 26 August 2008 at 09:55

    This is by far my favorite post. Thanks!

  63. Red says 26 August 2008 at 11:12

    @elisabeth, comment #5

    Your comment made me curious as to what the research defined as “sex”, and whether or not the psychological benefits were strictly physiological in origin.

    This is from a footnote in the linked PDF:

    “In Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz and Stone (2003) Measuring the quality of life, the authors found that among a sample of 1000 employed women that sex was rated retrospectively as the activity
    that produces the largest amount of happiness. Commuting turns out to be the least pleasurable activity. Also Blanchflower and Oswald (2004) Money, Sex and Happiness, find that sexual activity enters strongly into happiness equations.”

    I was unable to find the to find the full text of the original paper, so it remains an open question. If anyone knows where to find the full text of “Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz and Stone (2003) Measuring the quality of life”, that would be an interesting read.

    The wording of the “Blanchflower and Oswald (2004)” research as “Sexual Activity” suggests a more strict definition of sex, though the citation is rather vague as to the paper’s findings.

  64. DC Portland says 26 August 2008 at 11:24

    Response to Red (comment #62). The Kahneman study is frequently cited. I have a follow-up study from Kahneman and Krueger (2006) that uses the term “intimate realtions” rather than “sex”. These terms have been used interchangably. Also, the number of women who reported sexual activity out of the 1,000 in the survey was around 12%, while the number of cummuters was around 68%. Not exactly apples to apples.

  65. J.D. says 26 August 2008 at 11:37

    I love the idea of sex being the thing people enjoy the most and commuting the thing they enjoy the least. I don’t know why, but something about it tickles my gut.

    I just got back from a 20-mile ride into downtown Portland and back just for kicks. It took me 80 minutes. The equivalent drive would take me 40 minutes, plus time to find parking. I’m a firm believer that if people would do something with their commute other than just commute, it wouldn’t be so bad. Biking is one option. When I worked at the box factory, I would listen to books-on-tape during every 30 minute leg.

  66. Jason B says 26 August 2008 at 11:37

    #45 Lorena said:

    “I would add, however, that sex within the bonds of marriage is the only way that sex can contribute to true happiness (not just temporary pleasure).”

    Do you have scientific studies to back up this statement? I wouldn’t want to mistakenly have sex for pleasure when my goal is actually happiness.

  67. Sean C. says 26 August 2008 at 12:31

    Who wouldn’t rather have sex than commute! Here in Sacramento the 30 year plan to double public transit use will only mean a jump from 2% to 4% in ridership. Now add some light rail trains with individual compartments and beds and a year from now the survey will show sex and commuting to be equally pleasurable.

  68. Alison says 26 August 2008 at 13:01

    #50 Aaron said: “Winning the lottery may not make you happy, but in most cases it would not be an obstacle to being happy. Losing the use of one’s legs sucks. The quote JD uses makes light of the suffering of those who have become paraplegics.”

    Aaron, I think you assume too much. I do not claim to understand the perspective of paraplegics, not ever having been one myself, but the concept there is not “Being a paraplegic is great” – the concept is, happiness is not necessarily related to physical health. As a doctor, I see this all the time, and it is a wonderful thing. Why do you think that paraplegics measure just as highly on a happiness survey as lottery winners? I would suspect it is because they have decided that feeling sorry for themselves is not a fruitful exercise, and their experience of losing their legs has made them realize that other things in life are more important than having legs. In other words, they have learned great lessons regarding gratitude.

    For more on this topic, see Randy Pausch’s last lecture. Is Randy Pausch unhappy because he is dying of cancer? No, I suspect Randy Pausch’s happiness scale when he gave his last lecture was on par with the lottery winners. Does this mean that having pancreatic cancer is “good”, or that I would make light of the suffering of people with pancreatic cancer? Not at all.

    Try asking a parent of a special needs child about this idea and I think you will find the same answers. I have yet to meet the family of a severely handicapped person who would deny that their experience in that family has made them less joyful or grateful. And yet, I am sure that they also would agree that severe disabilities, in your words, “suck.”

    The point is that although on the surface you would classify certain life events as being “good” or “bad”, that classification does not correlate with their effect on your happiness.

    JD: love the post. I will share this.
    #66 Jason: you made me laugh out loud. 🙂

  69. Kevin says 26 August 2008 at 17:37

    Thank you seawallrunner! Great response.

  70. J-Bird says 26 August 2008 at 18:49

    Another “Money and Happiness” paper of some interest was recently published by Lara Aknin, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael I Norton, showing that while having money has very little effect on happiness, how you spend it can have an effect. They found that spending money on others increased happiness relative to spending it on yourself – interesting stuff!

    http://socialcapital.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/spending-money-on-others-buys-you-happiness/

  71. Adam says 26 August 2008 at 20:33

    J.D. –

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post and couldn’t agree more. I was particularly intrigued by #10 – “Embrace Routine”. I find that to be so true. If my world is constantly in flux and I am bombarded with decisions to make, it becomes taxing and frustrating. Not only that but I believe as humans we are a product of the habits that we create. I believe Aristotle said it best with:

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

    Cheers,

    Adam
    http://www.avoidregret.com

  72. Mama Zen says 27 August 2008 at 07:51

    Excellent article!

  73. katy says 27 August 2008 at 07:53

    I respectfully ask, what adult has five close friends? And how old are these people with five close friends? It’s someone’s opinion, this piece.

    I have a LOT of acquaintances but a close friend is someone I would count on for reciprocal friendship and sometimes help. If you have one close friend I think you are lucky. Ditto for family.

  74. Cliff Hsia says 27 August 2008 at 19:12

    Exceptional article…and was inspired to blog it on my blog, “How to Find Happiness” @ http://cliffhsia.com. Here’s the direct link to the post: http://cliffhsia.com/2008/08/27/13-steps-to-a-better-life-of-happiness/

  75. Angie says 27 August 2008 at 21:33

    Great stuff, JD! Long time no see–I’m still reading but don’t have much chance to participate of late.

    I couldn’t help but notice that all the illustrations you chose for this article were of little kids. It’s true; kids can be incredibly exuberant and fun; they feel their happiness so completely and that rubs off!

    Having your own is an awful lot of work and not a little costly, but boy howdy, what a way to foster close relationships. Even for people who don’t want to “grow their own”, there are so many ways to get involved with kids and make a positive impact on their lives, and so the future of the world.

  76. Jill says 29 August 2008 at 22:04

    I was intrigued by all this happiness talk until I hit “Have sex”. Um, what about those of us who don’t have partners and therefore aren’t able to have partnered sex? Many of these “happiness” bullet points seem to be geared to bored middle class folks who already have achieved a level of comfort and have their basic needs met. These happiness things do not address how those of us who don’t have jobs, partners or even enough money to keep a roof over our heads are suppose to go about being “happy”. I am grateful for what I do have, but believe me it’s not much and not quite as hard as say the bored housewife with two cars, kids, a hubby and a house.

  77. Kevin says 07 September 2008 at 07:49

    J.D.:

    Kudos. One of the best written, best researched blog posts I’ve read – anywhere. The Gilbert video was fascinating and entertaining, as well. Finally, your 13 points are all solid. Wonderfully done; thank you.

    Kevin

  78. kramer says 03 January 2009 at 23:42

    This is a good post..the best things in life are free and being counting your blessings

  79. rubin pham says 07 January 2009 at 16:06

    the best advice for the month. thank you.

  80. chacha1 says 27 January 2009 at 16:38

    @Lorena #45 … JD works hard to keep politics off these pages, let’s keep religion off too.

    @Jason #66 … nice riposte.

    Regarding the “set point” versus “set range,” I think the distinction is a petty one and doesn’t diminish the value of the premise that approximately 40% of one’s happiness quotient is subject to our own control via decisions and choices we make consciously.
    Personal example: I know that my husband and I are happiest when we are doing something together. Important: it doesn’t matter in the least *what* we are doing. Walking on the beach, going to a movie, driving through a new neighborhood and kibitzing about people’s landscaping … it’s the time spent together that does the trick. So if one of us is feeling low, I find a way to add more mutual activity to our schedule.

  81. MLP says 13 February 2009 at 18:46

    I believe life is a balancing act. Happiness is the cumalitive of the different aspects of our lives. I appreciated this post. Keep up the good work JD.

  82. MLP says 13 February 2009 at 21:14

    cumulative…
    🙂

  83. ResortAtSquawCreekTAHOE says 29 May 2009 at 19:55

    I’m happy due to great health, family, and the $400,000 cash I have in the bank. Living in a nice house, and having a vacation property in Tahoe also makes me happy, even though the value has gone down.

    I’m happy i have a JOB too, and that the stock market is recovering!

  84. Brian Wilson says 24 August 2009 at 10:48

    Having wealth while seeing so many others struggling is definitely a source of unhappiness for me. However,it is also a source of happiness because it provides the opportunity to directly help others in their misfortune. The rewards of giving to another without any expectations or conditions is a sure formula for happiness and that giving doesn’t always have to be in the form of money. Wealth is also relative, for you can always find someone more needy than yourself.
    Happy giving.

  85. Oleg Mokhov says 22 October 2009 at 15:12

    Hey J.D.,

    Happiness means fully living life. Being in the now. Experiencing that what’s around you.

    Dwelling on the past and planning isn’t living. Only experiencing is living. While it’s good to reflect on experiences and plan a direction, it should be done just enough to better the present.

    Then, get back to living. THAT’S what brings you happiness.

    And I agree that money itself isn’t happiness. Money isn’t the end but a means to an end. A tool to improve life, rather than life itself. How can a piece of currency bring happiness? It doesn’t feel particularly good against the skin, isn’t tasty, and a pretty boring play mate 🙂

    Awesome list for maximizing happiness, a great reminder to focus on what’s important to you in life.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Oleg

  86. Eric says 15 November 2009 at 18:47

    Having enough for some comforts in life help make me happy. I’ve been broke and remembering hoping my car wouldn’t break down. Now I can handle that a little better. But true happiness comes from within. I know several people making upper 6 figure salaries and they are the most miserable people I have met. I’m happy for my families health and mine. With that I/we can do anything 🙂

  87. David says 15 November 2009 at 20:12

    Good hello JD,
    I definitely agree with point 6 about creating goals. I had pretty much just wandered aimlessly when I moved out to Calgary, sitting at home doing nothing. For whatever reason, I decided to make a bucket list, and I quickly realized that there was tons of things that I actually /wanted/ to do, and that most of the items were pretty easy to do. Since then, I’ve gotten out of the house a whole lot more 🙂

    Keep up the good work!
    -David

  88. Elgin Tan says 25 November 2009 at 11:20

    This is a great post. Happiness is so very elusive. Many a times when we step on the hedonic treadmill in the hope of becoming that a little happier, we find that long term happiness does not materialize. What gets satisfied then, is simply a material craving albeit temporarily.

  89. Alex says 16 December 2009 at 21:42

    This is realy helpful and meaningful , but in my case , first i’m a 19yrs high school senior , and this year is so far the hardest , and i dont mean with my school exams or something , but socialy , right now i’m practicly without friends or a girlfriend (i’m good looking) , so i’m allways at home alone ,bu it wasn’t like this few years ago , i dont think i treat people badly , i’m nice and polite , so i realy dont know how i end up like this , and this is my source of stress and unhapiness !!

  90. DC Portland says 17 December 2009 at 11:06

    Hang in there Alex. I wish I could tell you that relationships are not important for happiness, but they are. Positive psychology research has repeatedly shown that intimate relationships are highly correlated with happiness.

    I was in the same position you are when I was a senior in high school. It sucked! College was the big turning point for me. It was a time when I developed my strongest, longest-lasting relationships outside of my family. If you are planning to go to college, just wait and relationships will happen. If you are not, you may want to consider changing your plans and attending college. My personal belief is that there is no cost that is too high for attending a good college. Good luck!

  91. g says 29 December 2009 at 14:26

    I liked the article and printed it for future reference. Wish you had some sort of link to just print the article and not the 20 wasted pages of comments!

  92. Sarah says 08 January 2010 at 20:19

    Money may not buy happiness but lack of money will guarantee unhappiness. (Not being able to pay bills, drowning in debt, frustrations with terrible job market… lots of unhappiness…)

  93. Dollars Not Debt says 18 February 2010 at 09:27

    Happiness is a state of mind. No outside influences can affect it unless you allow it to. Some people don’t allow anything to improve their happiness (money, love, etc). You could be living in a cave eating cockroaches and be happy (maybe a little insane as well).

  94. Mike says 08 March 2010 at 12:57

    My happiness comes from looking at my finances and not having any debt and looking at my brokerage and finding net capital gains and no capital losses. When I do find a woman that shares my values and interests, my priorities might change. Until then I’m loving my financial and personal freedom.

  95. Griffin says 13 March 2010 at 08:46

    One of the most interesting things I have found is that there is a certain point, as far as wealth goes, to where an increase in wealth does not make you happier. Once you are financially secure, money does not change one’s happiness in the least bit.

  96. Venkat says 21 April 2010 at 10:13

    I strayed into this gold mine very recently. Money does not make us happy…. it is the pursuit which gives us a lot of strong emotions and happiness is one of them. Being happy which is just an emotional state and can be manipulated should not be our goal.

  97. mvm71 says 03 September 2010 at 17:54

    Well its true that money is not everything. Having lots of money will not make one happy.Because they say that money is the source of evil. Sometimes it controls your life without you knowing it. When one doesn’t have money you only dream of having just enough to survive. But once you get the chance to get what you dreamed of you ask for more. Happiness is in the mind of the person, one just have to allow it to happen.

  98. Brett | Investing Part Time says 01 December 2010 at 17:27

    Hey JD,
    I know this is an old post but I really enjoyed your take on it. I constantly struggle with the ideas of being content with what we have, and of not comparing ourselves to others. It’s often difficult, and for me in particular, having just graduated from college and seeing friends who are off working jobs that pay them twice as much is difficult at times. I think the root of it for me is being able to have money to the point where it allows me some freedom to work for myself and set my own schedule. It’s a constant work in progress for sure though.

    Brett

  99. cely says 04 August 2011 at 20:25

    Sorry, but I saw this in my feed and felt like it was a copy/paste from 100 other blogs, or even GRS a year ago. New content please!

  100. Mike Jones says 13 May 2012 at 06:07

    This is really GREAT stuff and Thank You for your 13 Steps. I think taking action is the most important step to living a better life. You will never get across the street to take what is on the other side if you don’t step off the curb. If you never take that step you will only watch everyone else go by. There is no question that is usually the hardest step to take, but the one that comes with the most reward. All of the items on your list are meaningless if we never take ACTION.
    Remember, truly successful people happen to things; they don’t allow things to happen to them.
    Thanks Again for the Inspiration.

  101. Ernie Dempsey says 24 August 2012 at 14:46

    All of the things you have listed really do equal a very balanced life. Balance is so essential to being happy.
    The thing about gratitude is huge.
    People who are always finding that they never have enough money, they hate their car, their home isn’t nice enough, and have a ton of other problems are usually the ones who don’t take the time to consciously feel thankful for what they do have.
    Sometimes I think the universe gives more to those who are grateful for what they have and truly appreciate it. And for those who are unsatisfied, they work their butts off and can never have enough.
    Great article. Thanks for writing it.

  102. John says 23 September 2012 at 21:17

    A lot of this is BS. When you have kids if you don’t have money you’ll never see them, or your wife. Then everything will will suffer. Everyone will be miserable. You’ll live in worse area. You kids will go to worse schools. You’ll have less money to provide for a better education and future. And your time on earth will seem like a grind. Get a great incomeand career. At least then you have chance.

  103. Janet says 05 November 2012 at 09:08

    Amen to the answer by Aaron
    The income level can be low if you have a roof over your head and health and dental care. Without these three things happiness can deflate very quickly. My husband and I have an extremely modest income. We have been extremely happy however, I have to say the past few years we have had to drop health care and dental visits due to low cash and we have no insurance so life has become way less happy as we do not feel well and have no way to go and get a check up. This makes life more difficult.Our home is paid for but the needed repairs are becoming an issue and this makes life way more difficult so while we have food and warmth and the things we need. There are areas we can no longer afford on our modest income so the money now is a factor.

  104. peg hanafin says 29 June 2013 at 04:57

    Wonderful article, puts life in perspective. Only those in the throes of huge debt could find fault but then they wanted to have more than they could afford. We all need a certain amount of money, but I agree unless you share the excess its no good in the bank.

  105. Nick says 29 September 2016 at 00:32

    In regards to point no 3, what about homosexual, (LGBT) and Asexuals?

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