How to Be Happier?

Every now and again at work or in various discussions about human effectiveness I hear that money is not a motivator. And, of course it’s always preceded by the notorious re-statement of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs “As long as you have enough…” I get it, and I agree with it even though I have to admit that inside my gut I cringe a little every time I hear it.

Along comes an article in Scientific America about how to be happier, that suggests a twist on this that I’m sure I’ve considered before, but hadn’t really sank in as deeply as this article made it sink. It’s not how much we have that drives happiness, but instead is how we spend it.

They suggest that money can buy happiness, if it’s spent well. And they suggest we need to think about spending differently. In other words, we buy too much stuff, and too few experiences.

This makes total sense to me. Even better, it matches Maslow’s old saw. If you don’t have enough for basic security, you cannot be expected to be happy. But after that level, your happiness depends on a lot of other things, including what you do with your money.

Anyway, I though the whole thing was interesting, but the part that really sunk through to me was this:

Behavioral scientists have studied how people fail to consider what are called “opportunity costs.” Simply put, anything we buy means we are giving up something else. But we don’t often think of our spending this way. When we are deciding between a stereo that costs $1,000 and one that costs $1,100, we focus almost exclusively on which stereo we like better. We don’t naturally frame the decision as a choice between the $1,100 stereo or the $1,000 stereo plus $100 worth of new music. Put this way, the $1,000 stereo seems amazingly attractive.

It’s a bit the same with money and happiness. We get stuck in thinking that we need to have a house, a car, a flat-screen television to be happy, and so we spend nearly all of our money on these possessions. I try to ask myself before I make any purchase: What else could I be doing with this money? Am I really using this in the best way to maximize my happiness? If not, and this happens with alarming frequency, I put my wallet away.

Think about that next time you’re buying something you want but don’t need. Perhaps you’ll be happier if you did.

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