Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Well, the Lexus ad states that anyone who says money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it the right way. Certainly money can buy a Lexus, and a lot of other things too, and it’s fairly common for me to hear people say that they would be happy and their life would be great if they could just win the lottery or make movie star or professional athlete type money. They’d quit their job, buy anything they wanted, move somewhere exotic, and live happily ever after. The ubiquitous news reports of movie stars and other wealthy people who are having significant problems would seem to indicate that loads of money doesn’t necessarily correlate well with peace and happiness, but I wanted to discuss some current research evidence that addresses this question.
A 2008 and 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey of 450,000 Americans indicated that reported happiness and overall life satisfaction increased with income to a point and then leveled out. Additional income beyond that point continued to be associated with an improved sense of well-being, but not necessarily with more day to day happiness. The researchers also compared life-satisfaction survey results amongst countries and determined that America ranked 9th behind the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand.

In another recent study by Jordi Quoidback that was reported in the 2010 August edition of Psychological Science, results indicated that while money allows people to buy things, it also simultaneously impairs their ability to enjoy those things. The wealthier that the workers in the study were, the poorer they were at displaying a capacity to enjoy their positive experiences. The researchers explained this by stating that while wealth allows people to buy and experience more things it ultimately undermines their ability to savor life‘s simple pleasures.

For example, they stated that if someone had frequent opportunities to take expensive vacations, eat at fancy restaurants, and drive pricy cars, they might not get the same feelings of pleasure from having coffee with a friend, experiencing a sunny, nice day, or taking a walk with a loved one. Indeed a study of lottery winners indicated that the winners experienced less enjoyment from life’s simple pleasures than those who didn’t win money.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., argued that having money raises our aspirations of what we should expect to have in our daily lives. These raised aspirations not only lead us to take things for granted and impair our savoring abilities but they can also cause us to consume too much, tax the planet's resources, overspend and under save, go into debt, gamble, live beyond our means, and purchase mortgages that we can’t afford (20% of Americans trade in their automobiles every two years).

She concluded that there were several research supported ways in which money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness. These ways included spending our money on activities that help us grow as a person, strengthening our connections with others (dinners or trips with friends) contributing to our communities, spending it on activities and experiences rather than material possessions, spending it on many small pleasures rather than on one big-ticket item, and splurging on something that we work extremely hard to get and have to wait for. Dr. Lyubomirsky also concluded that we can derive the most happiness from our purchases if we take the time to appreciate the objects of our spending and strive to not compare ourselves with others in terms of what we have or what we’ve done.

Overall, these fairly recent research studies seem to indicate that to a point, a certain amount of money can be helpful in increasing perceived happiness and overall well being but that there can be pitfalls when having money and buying things leads to a loss of ability to savor the little things each day or to overspend, over consume or take things for granted. There also appears to be several ways money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness.

Ultimately, I’ve heard many philosophers and psychologists discuss happiness as an inner state that transcends where we live and what we own, and in that sense, the things a person buys or does with money are fairly irrelevant in determining the happiness of the person.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Do You Eat an Elephant?!

In my prior posts, I’ve discussed the entire process of cognitive restructuring, or changing the self-talk that we typically attach to life events to more encouraging, realistic thoughts that will result in feeling more the way we desire. This week, I wanted to discuss a specific cognitive strategy that can be applied to one of the most frequently occurring sources of stress that I hear discussed-----feeling overwhelmed with numerous life demands.

So often I hear people say that they have a million things to do, that they are never caught up at work, that they can’t get to everything that they need to do around the house, or that they feel overwhelmed in juggling all of the life demands coming from home, family, and work. The result of all this is a constant feeling of stress and pressure that can take a significant emotional and physiological toll on a person over the years and negatively impact overall peace and happiness.

The cognitive strategy I wanted to discuss is one of the keys to reducing the feeling of this chronic stress and pressure, and it hinges on the answer to the question I asked in the title of this article, which is-----One bite at a time! Probably most people have heard this saying or some version of it, and while it is a conceptually simple idea, actually doing this takes significant practice and persistence.

We all have our own life obligations coming from work, family, home, relationships etc. that make up our personal elephant to eat, and sometimes all of this can feel insurmountable; but one way that I see many people creating more stress and pressure than is necessary or healthy is by looking at the entire elephant and consequently feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and stressed. And of course looking at the entirety of all that needs to be accomplished often results in difficulty even getting going and accomplishing anything.

I remember a stress management group when a member said that she was too stressed to practice the meditative breathing I was teaching on that day because she was leaving on a trip in 8 days and had “a million things to do before she left“. I said no wonder she felt stressed!!!! That was a lot of things to do in a short time and we should write them all down….maybe she would need to postpone her trip! So we wrote down her list, and she had seven things to get done before she left, 5 of which she was going to be able to do in a total of 2 hours! Sometimes those elephants aren’t as big as we tell ourselves they are, but as I’ve discussed before, when you hear yourself saying repeatedly that you feel overwhelmed or have a million things to do, it will start to feel that way.

In addition to looking at the whole elephant and feeling overwhelmed, many people also have the tendency to carry the weight of the entire elephant around with them most of the time. They may be at work trying to knock some things out there, but they are still thinking about all that they have to do when they get home, or they may be trying to relax at night or get to sleep, but they’re still ruminating on and feeling the weight of all the things they have to do at home and at work the next day. It gets exhausting mentally carrying around all of these life “have tos” all the time.

The more beneficial strategy for someone is to mentally put the elephant of life requirements off to the side somewhere and cut out that first bite that they are going to tackle. They’re only one person-----they can’t be in two places at once or do “a million” things at the same time, so they should take that first manageable bite, keep all awareness on only that bite until it‘s done, and then think about and cut out the next piece to accomplish.

The cognitive challenge is to get good at catching when you mentally start to ruminate, stew, churn, or carry around the many life things that are piled up. When you notice this happening, remind yourself that you already have the one bite that you are working on, and mentally put everything else off to the side again until you are ready to begin the next piece.

The same concept applies if you are trying to do something fun that doesn’t involve taking any bites out of the elephant for a little while---- remind yourself that it’s okay to take those moments to enjoy your show, play with the kids, mess around on the computer, or whatever you’re trying to do to rejuvenate and reenergize. Don’t let your mind go back to rehearsing all the things that you need to accomplish. With persistence, you can get good at carrying around only the manageable thing that you can do at that moment, letting everything else go, and greatly reducing your overall stress and pressure.