Does Money Make Us Happy? Somewhat… Time after Time Studies Find Money Actually Isn’t the Most Valuable and Irreplaceable Asset for Happiness
What is it to be happy? What are the defining characteristics of happiness? How does our notion of happiness change as time goes by? Are we happier if we make more money? Are we less or more happy because we’ve had a lot of experiences over time, or is it about a lot of things?
There has been a surge of interest and research on happiness over the last 15 years, to the point where there is now a field of study called “Happiness quantification.” Economists and other business-school dwellers also refer to it as “utility” – usually with the word “optimization” in close proximity. Some of the findings are that happiness is very time-sensitive: you may be happier on a Sunday than any other week, you may be happier at 8 in the evening than at 2 pm, you are happier if you live in Colorado than in Nevada. And contrary to what our parents taught us, there is now some evidence that generally speaking, being richer means you are happier.
Now, just to confuse the issue further, although we Americans are nearly three times wealthier as we were in the early 1970s, when surveyed, we do not seem to report any higher levels of happiness than at that time.
And, with regard to income, a study from Princeton University in 2010 that polled 450,000 Americans reported interesting results: a cutoff line of about $75,000 a year. The lower you are on the income scale, the unhappier you are. But no matter how much you make beyond that mark, there is no substantial increase in your level of happiness.[i] Perhaps this is explained by the theory that there are actually two kinds of happiness: your day to day mood and how you feel when you get up in the morning contrasted with your overall level of satisfaction with your life, or how you feel it is turning out. The study concluded that 85% of us (no matter where we fall on the income scale) feel happy each day, and most also feel life is going well, or well enough.
In addition to economists, there is a cadre of other experts with plenty of advice on what makes us happy. I don’t purport to be an expert, but here are insights I’ve culled various sources:
- Having some control over our time, so that there’s at least an hour that is ours to do with what we want. Per the above referenced studies and contrary to conventional wisdom spouted for centuries, a higher paycheck will not make you happy if you have little or no time left for something that gives you real pleasure. Whatever we do for a living, whether we work inside the home, parenting, running a business, taking care of family in some way, or work outside the home, one of the foremost ways that men and women alike define happiness is that one hour (or so) a day (for some it’s only an hour a week, and even more precious at that!), has to belong to them and them alone. Studies over the past decade of our increasingly 24/7 work modes indicate that even executives at the highest echelons of the corporate suite feel that they have as little control over their schedules as some minimum-wage employees do. That’s astonishing, to say the least.
- Physical activity of some kind is a must. For decades exercise has been hailed as not only a stress-reliever but a happiness boost. The endorphins created by exercise can be enough to motivate us to better productivity, a more healthy brain, and even joy. Fit the time into your schedule to enjoy some kind of exercise and make sure that you push away from your desk and walk around instead of working through a high-fat lunch. Whether it’s music, walking to a colleague’s office instead of sending an email, taking an outdoor break to walk to lunch, or whatever works for you, break up the monotony and circulation-killing habit of sitting at a desk all day long.
- Start your day with a comedy fix, or fit time in for one during the day. Yes, surfing the net for cat videos has given whole new meaning to wasting one’s life away, but most office workers have found a way to manage the comedy break in sophisticated ways, indulge minimally, and then get back to work. The benefits of fitting in something that genuinely makes you laugh at the beginning or end of the day or whenever you need an energy boost, are so numerous there isn’t enough time or space to list them all. Not to mention, diverting yourself via a comedy break from hitting “send” on a very angry email could also save you from making a career-decimating mistake. Just don’t send an embarrassing comedy short to someone whose sense of humor you may not really understand.
- Moving away for even 30 minutes’ time from a challenging task – business or otherwise – is actually your fastest route to an optimal solution and, we hope, a happier day. One of my favorite new discoveries is a consulting firm called The Energy Project, http://www.theenergyproject.com. It is chock-full of ideas for boosting physical, spiritual, mental and emotional energy. A New York Times article about the firm remained in the #1 spot on the “Most Emailed” List for almost a week! Not only does it make me happy to try at least one new idea from that site on a daily basis, but I have come to regard it as my personal reminder to take a much-needed break.
- Productivity experts at Harvard Business School concur that it’s not just about money when it comes to being happy at work. In the February 2013 issue of Inc. magazine* on what makes employees unhappy, Professor Teresa M. Amabile asserts [see citation below] that “…making progress on real work…” and “…Feeling like you are able to move forward on a daily basis engenders real joy.”
There isn’t an office dweller alive who dreads meetings with no agendas, no purpose stated, and no measurable progress at the end of an hour (or more) of meeting where the time seems to drag on. Purpose + agenda + time limits = progress and, we hope, happiness at work.
- To Professor Amabile’s assertion, I would add that having an effective to-do list is essential. Resist the quantity-heavy to-do list, as plowing through a lot of unrelated tasks is nothing but project dandruff that fritters away time. Either bundle tasks by energy, purpose, or timeframe, or slam through inessential tasks as fast as possible. One of my favorite habits is to ask every day: “Did my work today increase my stock, lower it, or keep it steady?” Obviously, I try to have few days where I’m lowering my equity! Having a set of 60-90-120 day timetables – and revising them to accommodate the inevitable delays or deletions – is essential. Focus on what’s essential and will lead to greater results. Get those tasks done during the time of day when you have the most energy, whether it involves physical, mental, spiritual or emotional output that will give you the most productive returns.
- Hah – there is no “7!” How about you just set aside at least one day to rest and do absolutely nothing but what makes you happy. For many multi-tasking careerists, that means running a lot of errands over the course of the day and then relaxing in the evening. My husband and I do that exactly: we designate the one night where we’ll splurge on a Manhattan dinner out. While it’s presumed that most Manhattan dwellers order take-out food most nights, or that we’re always going to the best restaurants, the truth is actually more prosaic. When I’ve been out every single day and several nights in a row as well, what really makes me happy is to completely withdraw into my couch. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Consider it a gift – no Santa necessary.
*Finally, what actually is the most valuable and irreplaceable asset we have? Consider this: You can’t insure it. You can’t bottle it or safe-deposit it (not really). You can’t get it back once you’ve consumed it, without compromising or deftly negotiating other aspects of your life. When you have more of it than you thought, it can seem like an eternity – a good and bad thing, depending on your timeframe. The fact is, the most valuable and irreplaceable asset we have is TIME. Time after time, that’s what we all want more of, and we can’t get enough of it without planning it, managing it, understanding how we’re using it, and making the most of it. Time is of our essence, now more than ever.
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Sources and further reading:
3) What Makes Employees Unhappy | Inc.com
4) The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
 What Makes Employees Unhappy | Inc.com