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Keys to Happiness and how to make our own...

Peace. Contentment. A feeling of serenity matched with utter personal fulfillment.

Ask just about anyone and they will tell you their life’s objective is to be happy, followed by a few other personal achievements or successes. The United States happens to be obsessed with “finding” happiness, and there is cultural pressure not only for people to survive anymore, but to go a step beyond that into the self-growth/realization realm of happiness. And if you’re not happy, you should fix yourself.

As a psychotherapist and in my own caving to this societal pressure I decided to read some articles and watch a bunch of TED talks to see if there was anything “new” to me on this topic. I would like to share some of those research findings:

Money can buy happiness:

Researcher Michael Norton in his talk on Money and Happiness, argues that “money can actually buy happiness,” it just depends on how we spend it.

In one study of college undergrads he created two situations: in the first situation, students were given money to spend on themselves for “personal” use. In the other situation students were given money to spend on others, for “prosocial” use.

The first group of students ended up spending money mostly on coffee, secondly on food, and thirdly on earrings or cosmetics (the women) and the men still on food. The prosocial group spent their money primarily still on coffee (but for other people), or chose to give it away either to a friend or to a person in need on the street.

By an overwhelming statistic, the students in the second condition (the prosocial spenders) reported being much happier than the students spending for personal use. Perhaps this is because the personal spenders didn’t really do anything differently with the money than they would have with their own money, and the prosocial spenders did something both generous and creating a new, novel experience for themselves. The majority of students who ended up giving money away, for example, answered they would almost never do that normally. So, the moral to Norton’s study is that we make ourselves happier when spending money on others (or on new experiences) than when we spend it on ourselves.

This is also true for companies: when employees spend time doing prosocial or team-building activities they are happier and more productive in their sales than when they spend the same amount of time off work (or spending their time on personal use).

And sometimes money can’t buy Happiness:

Michael Norton also makes the point that Lottery winners’ happiness usually increases for no longer than a year, and by that time they’ve returned to baseline or in some cases become less happy. Maybe this is because many of them have acquired more debt than before, and their relationships tend to suffer since everyone they know has in some way asked them for money.

The answer to Happiness is in Diversity:

Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, explains in a TED lecture how food companies used to primarily be concerned with “pleasing everyone, universally, with one product.” This led to two-thirds of consumers being unsatisfied with their options, as well stagnant sales. Howard Moscowitz, the physicist responsible for making Pepsi, Ragu and other brands “rich beyond belief,” discovered after testing thousands of people, that people’s tastes vary in about three different ways on average. For example, one-third of people prefer a classic, smooth “authentic” Italian tomato sauce. Another third prefer an “extra spicy” version, and the final third prefer the “extra chunky,” although NO ONE predicted they would like the extra chunky kind. No one at Ragu had ever considered making an “extra chunky” tomato sauce… until people tried it and loved it.

He reported back to these companies that the only way to make people happy and to buy more product is to make three different types of tomato sauce, (or variations of diet soda after doing the same thing for Pepsi.)

This proved to be correct, and now there are 35+ different types of Ragu tomato sauce available to consumers. Thus, when we embrace “the diversity of human beings,” and therefore cater to each individual’s own taste, we will “find the answer to happiness…” as well as millions of dollars.

We can synthesize Happiness:

We often think Happiness is a thing to be found, but studies show that we can actually create it in our own minds, and all it takes is for our choice to be taken away. Researcher Dan Gilbert illustrates this with the Free Choice Paradigm:

A classic study gives a participant 6 Monet paintings to rank from least liked to most liked. The experimenter then tells the participant they can have (to keep) painting #3 and painting #4, (the majority of people had earlier said they liked #3, and #4 was usually at the bottom of their liking list). After being told they were given #3 and #4 to take home, they re-ranked the paintings, and almost always, painting #4 shot to the top of their list. So, because they were given and “stuck with” painting #4, they actually changed their actual affective reaction to their “aesthetic hedonic response,” so that they liked the painting much more.

This can be called “manufacturing” happiness, or the tendency for people to think “the one I got was even better than the one I wanted.”

There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, some more extreme than others. A person finishes a race in 3rd place as opposed to 1st place, and when it’s done they report being happier with the bronze because winning 1st place would have made them “cocky” about winning so they’d not try as hard next time.

Or, a 78 year old man is released from a 20+ year prison sentence after DNA evidence proves his innocence and wrongful imprisonment. When interviewed about his time served he says, “I don’t regret a minute of it… it was a glorious experience!”

Thus, although it might sound unrealistic or bizarre, it truly serves us to manufacture these protective thoughts that lead us to be happier with what we’re given. In fact, we do this to a lesser extent several times a day.

I hope you found some of these facts as interesting as I did. Here’s to wishing you the deepest serenity and fulfillment that life can offer. And, if you’d like to view some of these lectures, please go to:

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