After you receive that next big raise at work, or reach a certain economic level, you may think you’ll achieve contentment, happiness, or peace. The reality, though, is that such levels may very well be false summits that provide illusory benefits and ultimately, lead to just the next goal to reach in an ever-upward tilting treadmill. More, it turns out, may not be better; and there are different ways to achieve greater levels of contentment and happiness, regardless of your financial resources.
Multiple studies have shown that earning more can be a double-edged sword. It’s certainly true that we all need at least a certain amount of financial resources to meet our needs and some of our wants. When we are struggling to survive economically, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to think beyond our current circumstance; and additional funds could certainly lead to reduced stress and anxiety. These studies have shown a correlation between having more financial resources and reductions in stress, as related to our current financial condition.
That said, it doesn’t mean that ever-increasing funds result in ever-increasing benefits. These same studies also show that earning more money can become a stressor itself, as that money typically comes from increased hard work, effort, and added responsibilities. In addition, even understanding the concept of happiness can be difficult because it can be very individualized. As these studies reveal, while some people might find happiness in the things that additional resources can buy, others experience happiness in greater simplicity with more free time to enjoy various pursuits.
That is why it’s important to understand two powerful myths that drive many of us today—and how we can, and should, think, live, and act if we want to truly experience the life-giving benefits of a little bit more.
Myth number 1: Money equals happiness
One of the most important facts to understand about consumerism is that it rarely, if ever, results in long-term happiness. “Money cannot buy happiness” is more than a casual aphorism. It carries with it an abiding truth, and hedonic adaptation is one of the main reasons it is true. Hedonic adaptation is the idea that while positive and negative experiences can have an impact on our perceived level of happiness in the short term, our natural human tendency is to adjust to the change fairly quickly and return to our prior level of happiness. One study, for example, found that the happiness level of lottery winners a year after their win is the same as, or lower than, it was prior to their win. The opposite is also true. That same study found that, although people who become paralyzed after an accident experience a dramatic decrease in their perceived level of happiness, they generally return to their pre-accident levels of happiness once they get used to their new life situation.
Myth number 2: All you need to be content in life is . . . a little bit more
There’s a persistent notion in the world today that our current lack of happiness stems from the fact that we don’t have enough money and possessions—and that once we acquire more stuff, then we will be content and happy. Those who have actually acquired substantial stuff, however, beg to differ. According to a survey of the very wealthiest Americans, conducted by U.S. Trust, only about half of those wealthy respondents were very satisfied with how they spend their money (53%), fewer than half were very satisfied with how they spend their time (43%), only 19% said that more money would make life better, and only 4% thought more stuff would make life better.
This experience is no less true among those with more modest means, especially when it comes to homes and possessions. Larger homes have certainly been the trend in the United States, where the average home size has increased from 1,500 square feet in 1973 to nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015. At the same time, family size has actually gone down—so new homes now offer an average of 971 square feet per person, up from roughly 500 square feet in the 1970s. While home space has nearly doubled, overall satisfaction with our homes has stayed about the same. As we have adjusted to bigger homes with more bathrooms and amenities, our “home happiness” level has not increased. In fact, satisfaction with our big residences can actually go down if someone else builds a bigger home near ours, as social comparison is a major happiness killer.
How to find meaning, happiness, and peace
So if it’s not about getting more money, how can we actually find what we are looking for when it comes to meaning, happiness, and peace? Here are two ideas:
Seek purpose, not profit: Instead of seeking a bigger paycheck, we should first start with a clear purpose. Various studies have shown that those who possess a greater sense of meaning or purpose in life live longer than those who don’t. Also, purposeful people have reduced morbidity, fewer heart attacks, and reduced incidences of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment as they age.
Purpose and meaning can help us deal with adversity and struggle as well. After controlling for other factors, researchers in one study were able to predict better outcomes for people recovering from knee replacements, based solely on their sense of purpose. Patients who displayed higher levels of purpose in life had better mental health, which in turn led to better coping skills, such as more active engagement with follow-up treatments and physical therapy. As a result, these patients had superior results from their procedures.
Give to get: Another way to achieve happiness and peace is to focus not on receiving, but on giving. To test this, researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University gave one group of students $5 a day to spend on the same item for themselves each day, for a week. Unsurprisingly, the students reported higher levels of happiness the first day of their newfound “wealth” than the prior day, but that happiness level reverted back to the average by the end of the week.
The second group had more unexpected results. With this group, the researchers also gave each participant $5, but now the subjects were required to spend that money on someone else. As with the first group, this second group reported increased levels of happiness on day one. What was different, however, was that this second group did not have the typical hedonic return to the mean. Instead, their reported levels of happiness stayed elevated throughout the week. In other words, unlike the first group, they did not habituate to the positive feeling, thus muting its felt impact. The researchers tried to tease out a dozen different variables to explain the difference, but ultimately came to the conclusion that “giving” is simply fundamentally different from “getting.” We become inured to receiving, but giving continues to reward us.
If we truly want to attain the benefits of contentment that so many of us are looking for, we need to start with a clear purpose for ourselves and a generous attitude toward others and focus on using future financial resources to help magnify the effect of that intentionality and others centeredness.
David R. York is the author of The Gift of Lift: Harnessing the Power of Stewardship to Elevate the World.