Happiness studies are having their heyday, and research shows that improving our material prosperity beyond basic financial security doesn’t make us happier. There are other things instead that have a bigger impact on making us truly happy.
Spiritual considerations are, of course, important—religious faith has been shown to have benefits for our physical and psychological health and well-being—but even from a secular perspective, there are some tips that can help us to focus on things that will make us happier. Here are three such ideas: two from Harvard professors, and one that emerged from work done by a Harvard graduate student.
Spend money … on other people
According to Harvard professor Michael Norton, spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.
All too often, we think that being rich, and buying all the latest gadgets, the best cars, or the nicest house, will bring us bliss. Yet, all we have to do is watch the news or hear a little bit of celebrity gossip to know that money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. According to Norton, the reason money doesn’t make us happy is because we spend it on the wrong things, and, in particular, on the wrong people: ourselves.
A broad study carried out in several countries, both rich and poor, showed that the people who spend money on others are happier than those who don’t. Spending money on yourself doesn’t necessarily make you miserable, but if what you want is to be happy, self-centered spending is a wasted opportunity.
In addition, the study showed that the amount of money you spend doesn’t matter very much. We can spend on small things, and even so obtain the same happiness boost as spending more. What matters is focusing on others, and not on yourself.
Quality, stable relationships
Harvard professor and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is in charge of one of the longest-running studies of health and well-being in the world. His conclusion: stable, high-quality relationships make us happier and healthier.
The study has shown that happiness has little to do with wealth, fame, or how much you work. The 75 years of data show that a good life is built through good relationships.
It doesn’t even matter how many friends we have. What matters most is the quality of our closest relationships: having good quality, warm relationships protects us in body and mind.
Being in a relationship where both people feel that they can count on the other person if they need them, leads to them forming clearer and stronger memories. Even if the people in a relationship sometimes fight, as long as they have this feeling that they can count on each other’s support in hard times, their disagreements are practically forgotten.
Learn more by watching Waldinger’s TED Talk here.
Live in the present moment
Psychologist and Harvard graduate Matthew Killingsworth says that if we want to be truly happy, we need to be immersed in the present.
The study was carried out using an iPhone app as a means for monitoring people’s happiness throughout the day, in real time, on a massive scale throughout the world (over 15,000 people in over 80 countries).
What it showed is that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering then when they are living in the present moment. In part, the reason is thought to be that when our thoughts are drifting, we often think about our worries, regrets, and anxieties. However, it turns out that we are happier if we’re focused on the present—even if it’s an unpleasant situation—than when we let our mind wander to some neutral topic.
You can watch Killingsworth’s 2011 TED Talk here.
In short, these researchers say that if we use what we have received to help other people (Luke 6:38); if we are involved in stable, loving relationships (Genesis 2:18; Proverbs 17:17, 18:24); and if we focus on living each day in the present (Matthew 6:34), we will be happier than if we do otherwise.
The art (and science) of true happiness
Is the way we seek happiness today self-defeating?