With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.
-William Shakespeare

Last week we talked about the pain of criticism. Today, happiness! (The following is adapted from our book – Why the Rhino Scatters his S#!T: Expanding Your Fun, Fulfillment, and Impact at Work.)

Take a moment right now to consider what makes you most happy. What kinds of things would be at the top of your list? Is it time with family and friends? Good conversation? Meaningful work? Novelty? A good book? Disneyland? Any of those could play a role in your happiness, at least temporarily. Interestingly, research has shown that people are remarkably poor at determining what drives their own fulfillment. So what really makes human beings happy?

To begin, it’s worth pointing out that happiness and fulfillment does not mean we experience good feelings and satisfaction all the time. One can be very happy with one’s life overall while feeling sad or anxious or angry at a particular moment. For now, we will use the terms happiness and fulfillment both to mean long-term satisfaction with one’s life.

Considering how ravenously the human race drives itself toward making more money and buying more things, we might conclude that money is the real source of happiness. The reality is more nuanced. First, your humble author is not one of those annoying types who says money doesn’t buy happiness. If your money isn’t buying you happiness, you’re spending it wrong! A robust body of research has shown that money does buy happiness until your basic needs are met, after which it doesn’t make much difference at all. In the United States, a yearly pay increase from $20,000 to $50,000 will have a permanent and measurable impact on that person’s happiness. But what of a jump from $100,000 to $500,000? This increase will deliver a measurable short-term bump in happiness, but virtually no difference in terms of long-term happiness. (We know that as you read those numbers, you’re probably skeptical. You believe you’d definitely be happier if you experienced that $400K salary boost, and that someone should test the theory by giving it to you. For a short while, you would be happier. But, as decades of lottery winners have taught us, the happiness boost doesn’t last long.) Breaking free of poverty delivers enormous happiness. Moving from middle-class to wealthy does not.

Once basic needs are met, there are strategies for spending our money that do lead to increased happiness. Research shows that memories gained from spending money on experiences provide more, and longer-lasting, fulfillment than spending money on things. If you are struggling to choose between the latest HDTV or the great vacation, the great vacation will likely lead to a larger and more enduring increase in happiness.

When we do choose to spend money on things (one cannot live by experiences alone), science tells us how to maximize our fulfillment there as well. We will consistently be happier if we spend our money on those things we use most often and for the longest periods of time. Essentially: spend your money where you spend your time. If you don’t spend a lot of time in the car, but you do spend a lot of time in front of the computer, avoid wasting money on the car. Buy a vehicle that will reliably get you where you need to go without bursting into flames, and spend some of that car money you saved on an exceptional computer and top-notch software. The money you spend on a computer you use for eight hours a day will do far more to boost your fulfillment than money spent on a car you use for a 30-minute commute. Conversely, we spend a lot of time in our beds and our clothes every day, while spending comparatively little time on the toilet (hopefully). Spend your hard-earned cash accordingly.

There’s an even better option: spend your money on someone else. When asked, the vast majority of people say that if given $1000, they will be happier if they spend it on themselves. Yet when actually given the opportunity to rate their own levels of happiness, it is consistently higher when they have used the money on others. This holds true even for those who rate themselves as above-average in selfishness. The effect remains even in poverty-stricken countries like Uganda. When experiments were carried out there, those who spent the money on others still reported themselves as happier than when spending the money on themselves, even though doing so sometimes meant not having enough to meet their own basic needs.

Finally, avoid debt. Debt can cause significant stress, which is a death knell for happiness. Utilize debt only when necessary, and, if the goal is to maximize happiness, pay it off sooner rather than later.

Since money is among the weakest tools for increasing our happiness, let’s talk about what drives happiness to a far greater extent. The first two on the following list are beyond our control, but the rest we can change:

  1. Be either young or old, but not in the middle. Those in their late sixties and older consistently rate themselves as happier than those of any other age group. Contrary to popular belief, growing old is a happy thing. There is another happiness peak: around our mid-twenties. Happiness bottoms out in middle age, then consistently goes up from there. Depending on where you are in your life, this may be very pleasing, or deeply depressing, news. Curiously, when asked which group is happier, both older folks and younger folks say the younger group is happier, even though the older folks consistently scored higher on happiness assessments. A year ago I came down with an antibiotic-resistant double ear infection that robbed me of my hearing and eventually required surgery. Less than thirty days later I experienced a lumbar spinal disc herniation (my first and, so far, only) that made it almost impossible to walk for weeks. I am especially gratified to know that despite my recent medical challenges and desire to return to the indestructible body of my twenties, my happiest days are still ahead. And so are yours.
  2. Be born with a happy brain. In every Indo-European language, the word for happiness shares linguistic roots with the word for luck. Whether we like it or not, the luck of our genes plays a significant role in our own happiness. Half or more of our baseline level of happiness is programmed into our genes, which then (mostly) determines the unique neurochemical milieu in which your brain will be swimming for the rest of its life. Some people are simply born happier than others. If you are old enough to be reading this, you will have a pretty good idea of where you might fit. If you weren’t born with the genes to be blissfully happy on a regular basis, don’t be too hard on yourself or give up in despair. If others seem to consistently display more happiness than you, recognize that much of it is beyond your command; it is the result of your personal genetic lottery. We are not left powerless, however. Points 3 through 10 below provide a number of actionable ideas for increasing your happiness, regardless of age or genes.
  3. Keep fit. Aerobic exercise is a powerful way to increase happiness. Aerobic exercises – workouts that get the heart pumping like running or swimming -release endorphins, which is the brain’s primary happy chemical. (Anaerobic exercise – like lifting weights – does not have this effect, though it is beneficial in other ways.) Exercise also decreases stress and boosts both confidence and the immune system. Please note that being fit does not mean being thin. A doctor or health specialist can work with you to determine what fitness means for your particular age and body type.
  4. Get plenty of sleep. Every hour of sleep leads to approximately 5% increase in reported happiness upon waking. But only up to a point; after 9.5 hours of sleep, happiness actually drops. (This is only true on average. Because each individual’s sleep needs can differ significantly, you may choose to experiment with different periods of sleep to find out what works best for you. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.)
  5. In a bad mood? Think of something that genuinely makes you smile. Then let yourself smile. It used to be thought that our moods affected our physical behaviors (which they do), but that it didn’t work the other way around. The latest research has proved that wrong. Physical behaviors feed back to the brain and actually alter its mood. If we smile, that suggests to our brain that we must be happy right now. It then releases hormones to bring us closer to the mood the body is acting out. Use your body to trick your brain into a happier frame of mind. (This only works if it is a genuine smile. Researchers found that if people faked a smile, their mood actually worsened. So think of something happy, or of someone you love, to get that authentic smile.)
  6. Socialize. Even those who label themselves as introverted, and those who struggle with social anxiety, rate themselves as happier on days they spend some quality time with friends and family than on days they isolate themselves. Despite the fact that I speak to people for a living, I am an introvert. After a party or stimulating presentation, I need to go home and hide from the world. Because socializing is mentally exhausting, I recharge by interspersing my social activities with adequate periods of time alone. But I am still happier on days I spend some time with others than on days I don’t. And the research backs this up. In fact, the quality (not quantity) of one’s social connections is one of the best predictors of happiness that has ever been measured. To make this effect even stronger, surround yourself with mostly happy, optimistic, caring people. Steer clear of cynics, chronic complainers, and people who lack empathy. We tend to become more like those around us, so choose your social circles wisely.
  7. Help others. Brains love to ruminate. They will obsess over the future, over the past, over any little thing to the point of driving us into depression or anxiety or exhaustion or all three. Getting out of our own heads by focusing on serving those around us is not simply a nice application of the Golden Rule; it’s a guarantee for increased fulfillment.
  8. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. This is more than some syrupy slogan. Thank others more frequently and generously. Research has shown a strong correlation between our levels of happiness and the amount of gratitude we show. It also boosts the happiness of the recipient. Yet gratitude doesn’t even require another person to work its magic. Keeping a small journal, with a daily list of three things for which you are grateful, will lead to a measurable increase in your happiness.
  9. Do what you love as often as you can, and make much of what you love productive. Consuming is fun, but only in measured doses; even the most ebullient film fanatics eventually get tired of watching movies all day. While our brains get tired of consuming even the most pleasurable things, they appear to have a nearly limitless passion for producing something they consider worthwhile. If your work gives you lots of money but little opportunity to do what you love, you will be far less happy than those whose work gives them just enough money but lots of what they love. The claim that happy people are more productive has merit, but it may be more accurate to say that productive people are happier.
  10. Create a sense of control. Our brains feel significant anxiety if they think they can’t control their own environment. Find ways to control events around you, even if that control is illusory, and you will see your happiness increase. For example, you may not be able to control what traffic is like on your way to work, but just by choosing in advance what music or podcast you will listen to while you drive will give your brain a sense of control and make the drive more pleasant.

Finally, although I have used happiness and fulfillment interchangeably (and will continue to do so outside this paragraph), one can be had without the other. Watching my favorite TV show definitely makes me happy, but it is only sporadically fulfilling. Conversely, writing articles like this doesn’t make me happy! The research takes ages. The writing itself is tedious and frustrating more often than not. But it is deeply fulfilling. I consistently feel better after writing something of value than I do after watching a movie or eating a great meal. It’s in the work, the creative effort, that we find a satisfaction that is more than just feeling good. Temporary bursts of happiness are wonderful and should be enjoyed. May we also discover the kind of fulfillment that gives a deep, long-lasting richness to our lives.

For Your Consideration

  1. Because we can be notoriously poor at identifying what really fulfills us, poll your loved ones. Ask those who know you best, at home and at work, what they think makes you most happy. You might uncover insights you wouldn’t have reached with mere self-analysis.
  2. Which of your existing ideas, beliefs, and habits currently limit your own fulfillment? Which of those has the single greatest negative impact on your happiness? What will you do about it?
  3. What are you already doing that you should continue doing (or do more of) to increase your fulfillment?

References and Additional Readings
Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York: Random House, 2010.

Aknin, Lara B.; Norton, Michael I.; Dunn, Elizabeth W. (2009). ?From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 (6):523-527.

Brickman P.; Coates D.; Janoff-Bulman R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (8): 917-27.

Bronson, Po. What Should I Do with My Life? New York: Random House, 2002.

Canfield, Jack and Jacqueline Miller. Heart at Work. New York: McGraw Hill, 1996.

Carter, Christine (2008). Happiness is being socially connected. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/happiness_is_being_socially_connected

Coulson, J. C.; McKenna, J.; Field, M. (2008). Exercising at work and self-reported work performance. International Journal of Workplace Health Management 1 (3): 176-197.

Dunn, Elizabeth W.; Aknin, Laura B.; Norton, Michael I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science 319 (5870): 1687-1688.

The Economist. The U-bend of life. December 16, 2010.

Fowler, James H.; Christakis, Nicholas A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ 2008;337:a2338.

Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling Upon Happiness. New York: Random House, 2006.

Jawbone (2015). What makes people happy? We have the data. https://jawbone.com/blog/what-makes-people-happy/

Jenkinson, Caroline E.; Dickens, Andy P.; Jones, Kerry; Thompson-Coon, Jo; Taylor, Rod S.; Rogers, Morwenna; Bambra, Clare L.; Lang, Iain.; Richards, Suzanne H. Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health 13: 773.

Killingsworth, Matthew A.; Gilbert, Daniel T. (2006). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 330 (6006): 932.

Kuhn, Peter J; Kooreman, Peter; Soetevent, Adriaan; & Kapteyn, Arie (2008). The Own and Social Effects of an Unexpected Income Shock: Evidence from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Department of Economics, UCSB. UC Santa Barbara: Department of Economics, UCSB.

Kumar, Amit; Killingsworth, Matthew A.; Gilovich, Thomas (2014). Waiting for Merlot:
Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases. Psychological Science 25 (10): 1924-1931.

Leider, Richard J. The Power of Purpose. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja; Sheldon, Kennon M.; Schkade, David (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology 9 (2): 111-131.

McMahon, Darrin M. (2009). Happiness, the Hard Way. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/happiness_the_hard_way

Moss, Jennifer (2015). Happiness Isn’t the Absence of Negative Feelings. Harvard Business Review August 20, 2015.
Sandholtz, K., B. Derr, K. Buckner and D. Carlson. Beyond Juggling: Rebalancing Your Busy Life.?San Francisco: Berrett Koehler, 2002.

Seligman, Martin. Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Scott, B. A.; Barnes, C. M. (2011). A multilevel field investigation of emotional labor, affect, work withdrawal, and gender. Academy of management journal 54 (1): 116-136.

Stanley, Thomas J. and William D. Danko, The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy. New York: Simon & Schuster Trade, 1998.

Stone, Arthur A.; Schwartz, Joseph E.; Broderick, Joan E.; Deaton, Angus (2010). A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107 (22): 9985-9990.

Weiss, Alexander (2008). Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing: The Genetics of Personality and Well-Being in a Representative Sample. Psychological Science 19 (3): 205-210.