I’m squarely mired in the late 20th Century, barely able to operate my phone and texting at the speed of tar. I’ve got a few favorite sources of news and information and subscribe to both the print and digital versions, assuming, I guess, that I might miss something were I to settle into one mode over the other, but still more comfortable in reading hard copy.
All of which is to say that Time Magazine sends me daily teasers which I generally ignore. Yesterday, however, the tag line was, “Money Really Can Buy Happiness”. P.T. Barnum was probably gentle in making the observation that a sucker is born every minute as my inner sucker is reborn time and again when the improbable seems too delicious to ignore.
So, I opened the article, primarily wondering who measures happiness in any meaningful way, what kind of money, and why hadn’t they called me? The heartening and completely unsurprising result of the incompletely described research is that the folks who were given money to spend in any way they wish were happier when they spent on others than when they spent on themselves.
This is not the first time I’ve encountered that observation – “It is better to give” … and so on, but I’m pleased to know that scientific inquiry supports what might be called generosity. Happiness is ephemeral, fleeting, and not all that easy to pin down, despite the plethora of posters and buttons that offer pithy resolutions to be followed on the road to Happytown.
“There is no road to happiness; happiness is the path”
“When it rains, look for rainbows; when it’s dark, look for stars.”
“Life only comes around once, so do whatever makes you happy, and be with whoever makes you smile.”
Whomever, but let it go.
“… be with those who make you smile” would work, but … no, leave it alone.
The point is that every one of those statements is excellent advice, but similar to the advice given to one who would become an accomplished artist:
“Become a perfect person then paint naturally.”
OK, and yet. Still fleeting, ephemeral, and not easily summoned.
Let’s agree for a moment that we’ll consider all these suggestions without irony. If, say, happiness is the path, it seems there’s an obligation to take steps along the way, and, the enlightened seem to be arguing, it is the steps themselves that make the difference. Since we can’t buy our way to happiness or, based on my experience, think our way to happiness, there’s nothing left but to try this generosity ploy, this selfless consideration of others gambit.
Let’s pare this down to the essential action step.
Act as if the well-being of others mattered. Take the actions that one would take if, say, the well-being of others mattered. There’s no need to wear a hair shirt or make yourself a doormat, even if, maybe especially if, the doormat role has been the go-to mode of being for a while. The key, from what I can gather, is moving beyond intention into action – making the phone call, writing the letter, stopping by.
Apparently, it’s also good to give something if you can.
Time Magazine did not offer research into the salutary effect of petting kittens or puppies, but it’s worth remembering that’s always a reasonable last-ditch option should all else fail. Giving puppies to others? Not always appreciated.
Leaving puppies and Time Magazine behind, I turned to a short and giddy work, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending by Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, a professor of marketing at Harvard.
Leaving aside the observation that having money to spend in the first place may be a happier state of being than not having money to spend in any fashion, the authors suggest five significant was to spend happily, suggestions fortified by the same sort of research our pals at Time carried out.
The first of these is to spend on experiences rather than stuff.
I’m not a hoarder (I know, if I have to make that case, I’m probably a hoarder), but I am surrounded by stuff, even after having touched every object as the tidiness experts have instructed, waiting for the “spark of joy” that separates the articles that I must keep from those that need to be packed up and left at the curb with the “Free to Good Home” sign taped to the box(es). I face the unlikely truth that experiences may have more “happy clout” (not a scientific term) than yet another pair of shoes or Roy Rogers lunchbox.
Next, it appears that we actually do better in giving ourselves a treat from time to time, especially in celebrating the treat, openly, dare we say, happily. No, we can’t spend every night out on the town, but hitting a great restaurant or a special concert as a treat seems to be the sorts of experiences that linger in the memory.
Overwhelmed? About to snap? These scientists argue that one of the happiest investments we can make with whatever money we have to spend may be in buying time. Time off. Time away. Time with. Time without. Time to think. Time to play. Time to remember. Time to connect.
Pay now, consume later. This is the trickiest of the strategies, well conceived, but tough to work out in practical terms. Let’s say we intend to treat ourselves, have an experience, spend some money in the hope of enjoying the memory of the event as much as the event. So far, so good. But, if the last thing we remember is paying for the meal, some of the jolly encounter can be mitigated by remembering the cost of the appetizers or the desert. Perhaps we just went ahead and ordered willy-nilly, without considering cost. “Yikes”, we say, or something along those lines; “That cost a lot more than I thought it would.” Experience soured.
Pay in advance. A week in advance. A month in advance. Buy a gift card or a coupon or a ticket. Remember the experience and not the cost.
Finally, our scientific duo arrive at the very lesson we learned at the start of this conversation.
Invest in others.
I remember being asked as what I wanted to be and answering, “I’d like to be a patron.” That hasn’t turned out to be the vocation I’ve pursued for most of my life, but there have been moments in which I have been able to help someone in a small way by buying a painting or buying a ticket to a concert or performance, occasionally several tickets, and, in more than one holiday season, feeling blue for all the reasons that folks feel blue during holiday seasons, I’ve written checks for not-very-much-money and sent them to institutions and agencies that help people.
Do I have scientific proof that spending money in that way made me happy? No. But I remember it as making me feel ok, actually feel ok in remembering it now. Not so bad as spending goes, and where would I put another lunchbox anyway?