The search for happiness is one of humanity’s greatest motivators. But most of us seek it through higher salaries, bigger and better homes, the newest gadget or latest fashion. A recent survey of wellbeing highlights three simple keys to happiness that most people can possess: a balanced and generous approach to money, a strong sense of life purpose and a few close and supportive relationships.
Money helps (sort of)
Money does help to increase our happiness when we use it to reduce our everyday stress, like paying off debt, going out for a meal when we don’t feel like cooking and repairing the car when it breaks down. But research has also revealed that while people’s happiness tends to increase with their household income, this is true only up to about $100,000 a year. After that, any extra income makes no difference to your sense of happiness. Also, higher earnings aren’t a guaranteed gateway to a happier life, because they’re often related to increased stress, longer working hours and less satisfying personal relationships.
When scholars Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson researched the relationship between money and happiness, they found that the happiest people were not those who had the most money but those who gave the most away—as long as their giving didn’t lead to personal hardship. Their findings, published in the paper “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right,” challenge the popular idea that owning wealth makes you happy.
So, while some extra money can potentially make you happier, your happiness doesn’t depend on your income.
Most of my British relatives lived through World War II and the postwar period, when even basic supplies were rationed. They still talk with pride about the wedding dress sewn from torn parachute silk, sprinkling brown sugar on their bread to make a “cake” and building billy-carts out of old baby prams. There’s an intense sense of satisfaction when you make the best of what you already have rather than wanting new and different things. Living on less encourages us to make-do and mend, grow our own food, recycle old clothes, create our own gifts and discover the joys of simple and creative living.
Even people on low incomes can be totally happy and content if they feel in control of their spending, saving and giving. This is good news in a climate of spiralling home prices and when economic recession lurks around the corner.
When Katie lost her job in the city, she bought a tiny home in a rural community. Instead of working 60 hours a week for an investment company, she now designs bags made from recycled clothes. “I have just enough, and enough is enough!” she says.
As we’ve discovered, spending money on ourselves doesn’t bring long-term happiness. We might feel a bit of excitement when we buy something new, take it home and use it the first few times. But as soon as it becomes familiar and mundane, we feel the need to replace it with something else. A desire for new things can easily spin our spending out of control. An overdrawn bank account makes us feel guilty and miserable, so we go out and buy something else to soothe the pain, which in turn leads to more debt. This vicious cycle not only makes things worse for us; it fuels a massive and unjustifiable waste of our world’s limited resources.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher with the University of California, suggests that we’d be much happier if we climbed back down the economic ladder, lived in smaller homes and learned how to practise “strategic under-consumption.” She noticed that we’re often happier when we buy less and focus on the blessings of the things we already own.
James Wallman, author of Stuffocation, thinks that the best way to spend one’s money is not on material things but on positive experiences shared with other people.
Living with purpose
Adam Braun was in his mid-twenties when he founded the charity Pencils of Promise in 2009. Even though his family and friends expected him to choose a “get-rich-quick” career path, he was passionate about making a difference in the world. Over the past seven years, his charity has built more than 300 schools around the world and changed the lives of thousands of children and communities.
But we don’t have to start an organisation like Pencils of Promise in order to have a sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s just about shifting our attitude or changing our perspective.
Dave works in a factory that makes nails and screws. “It isn’t the most interesting job in the world, but when the boredom gets to me, I start thinking of all the different things those nails will make and that helps me to value what I do. Once a week my wife and I volunteer for a charity that refurbishes homes for the refugees in our city. My faith in God gives me a powerful sense of purpose, because I know that He has a plan for my life.”
Leadership consultant Robin Sharma suggests, “Fast-forward to the last day of your life. What will have been most important? Then make that important now.”
When it comes to happiness, our close relationships, especially our marriages, are even more important than our life purpose or how much money we earn. We all need relationships where we can share our thoughts, ideas, feelings, concerns and hopes, and know that we’ll be totally accepted, heard and understood. We need friends and family to give us a helping hand when life gets tough and who’ll be there for us no matter what.
Being in a loving relationship with our husband or wife, children or siblings has a profound and positive effect on our emotional wellbeing, our health and even how long we live. Heart surgery patients with loving partners and families recover more quickly than those who live on their own.
Simple things can have an enormous influence on the happiness of our relationships—like choosing to say thank you to each other as often as we can, finding ways to be kind to each other, helping each other out and doing what makes the other person happy.
When the Wilson family heard about these three secrets to happiness—living generously, living a purpose-filled life and growing closer relationships—they started fundraising for a trip to South America to help renovate an orphanage. For one year, they bought something new only if they could buy an identical item for the orphans. When they arrived at the orphanage, they spent a month building, cleaning and painting.
“It was the best thing our family ever did!” Phil, father of the Wilson family, says. “It challenged our materialism, brought us together and gave us the most fulfilling experience of our lives.”
Happiness in Action
If you’d like to enjoy a happier life, here are a few simple ideas to get you started.
1. Living generously
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
- How do money and financial stress affect your relationships?
- What could you do to be more content with what you already have?
- Think about a time when giving away your money or buying something for someone else made you feel most happy.
- List 10 ways you (and your partner) could practise strategic under-consumption, and then start to implement these ideas.
- Think of some ways you could give more to others, even if you don’t have much money. What else could you give to share happiness with others?
2. Living a purpose-filled life
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world” (Matthew 5:14, The Message).
- How do your faith and values give purpose to your life?
- What would you most like to be remembered for?
- What can you do to help others such as your partner find their purpose in life?
- Make a list of the values that are most important to you, such as kindness, honesty, courage, generosity, forgiveness and justice. How could you blend more of these values into your work and family life?
- List some simple ways you could increase your sense of life purpose, both individually and if you are married, as a couple. Put your ideas into practice and notice how they affect your happiness.
3. Growing closer relationships
“Love from the centre of who you are; don’t fake it… Be good friends who love deeply… Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody” (Romans 12:9, 10, 15, 16, The Message).
- List at least five things you could do to improve your closest relationships, such as saying thank you more often; offering to help; listening to your partner’s hopes and dreams and helping to fulfil them.
- Try doing at least one of these things every day, and notice the difference it makes to your relationships and to each one’s happiness.
Karen Holford is a family therapist with a background in occupational therapy and developmental psychology. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished here with permission.