How to Buy Happiness

How to Buy Happiness

Have you heard this saying, Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it? As someone who appreciates the finer things in life, I’m all for big enough yachts, but here is the question: how close to happiness can you actually pull up?

As a coach to high achievers, I’ve had plenty of heart-to-heart conversations with millionaires and billionaires – those who are happy, not so happy and just plain miserable. I’ve also studied the science of happiness, so let me share with you the top 5 things that might seem counterintuitive, yet can bring you more happiness than you thought possible.

Can Money Buy Happiness?

We all know that money can buy many wonderful things, including comfort, independence and flexibility, but what about this long-standing question: can money buy happiness? According to new research of the science of spending (yes, there is such a thing), the answer is yes; however, here is the caveat: money can buy you happiness only if you know what to buy.

And before we get into the details, let’s chat about How much is enough?

How Much Is Enough?

According to scientifically validated research conducted by the Ivy League universities, money can make you happier; however, when your basic needs are met, money doesn’t make you that much happier. The magic cut-off number is $75,000 USD to be exact, according to Dr. Daniel Kahneman, a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University who won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

His study determined that “more money doesn’t necessarily buy you more happiness, but less money is associated with worry and emotional pain”. In short, if you’re struggling to take care of your basic needs, a lack of money certainly elevates your stress and anxiety.    

I would argue, however, that our happiness has more to do with our relationship with money than with a calculated number.

The truth is that we all have a money story – the unconscious tale that we tell ourselves about what money means to us and what it says about us to others.

This story determines how much we think we are worth, how much we deserve and how much we are capable of earning. It defines what would happen if we had more money and what would happen if we had less.

Our money story has everything to do with our inner self-image and our unconscious beliefs about money. Most of us have a mindset rooted in scarcity and a sense of not-enough-ness, which severely affects our relationship with money.

I remember – years ago – walking on a picture-perfect beach while on vacation in Florida and having a panic attack over the lack of money, yet again. The fact that our net worth was 7-figures didn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever. You see, I grew up in Communist Russia where everyone was equally poor. You can only imagine the money beliefs stored in my subconscious mind! It took me a while to change my money story and turn my relationship with money around.

Now, you might say, “Olga, everybody has a different idea of basic needs – for some people $75,000 might mean financial freedom while for some it’s just a drop in the bucket.” I hear you, and while I’m not sold on the number, the main point is this: when your basic needs are met, more money doesn’t make you that much happier, but how you spend your money does.

So let’s take a look at the top 5 ways to buy happiness, according to the latest scientifically validated research.

1. Spend Money On Experiences Rather Than Stuff

It turns out that we generally get more happiness when we spend money on experiences than stuff. That’s because our brain is extremely adaptive. When we buy things that we think would make us happy, we might feel that happiness buzz, but then we get used to them. Apparently, adaptation is one of the biggest enemies of happiness.

Even though we naturally associate economic value with material stuff, rather than buying a brand-new car or the very latest phone, scientific psychologists recommend spending money on experiences.

“You can really like your material stuff”, says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Professor of Psychology at Cornell University who’s been studying the connection between happiness and money for over two decades. “You can even think that part of your identity is connected to your material things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

A cool thing about experiences is that they often make us happier even before they happen – think about waiting to go on an exciting trip. And even if our experiences disappoint us, they either turn into funny stories or get forgotten. “Because experiences disappear, they let us make up a reality that was amazing and wonderful,” says Dr. Michael Norton, a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, “and they make us happier.”

Here is the thing: at the end of your life, will you be thinking about your nice watch or a magical vacation with your lover? You get the idea.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with having a luxurious lifestyle, looking sharp and sexy, and taking advantage of technology; I’m all for it! It’s just too often many of us fall into the trap of thinking that material stuff will make us happy and somehow fill the void deep inside. The inconvenient truth is that nothing material can compensate for whatever we feel we might be lacking. We’ve got to do some deep inner work and heal our not-enough-ness from the inside. 

2. Spend Money On The People You Love

One of the big reasons why spending money on experiences makes us happier is because we share them with other people. Social outing, from inexpensive dinners with friends to lavish family vacations, allow us to bond with others and create memories.

And here is something really, really important. Our fundamental human needs are to love, to be loved and to belong. Love and acceptance of those we love create a safe psychological space where our happiness and self-expression flourish. As scientific psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, “We need others to complete us.”

Thanks to some recent help from the science department, we now know why it’s so important to fulfill these needs. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, one of my favorite neuroscientists and a leading scholar in her field, has devoted her entire career to the scientific study of emotions from the body and brain perspective. For for the first time, science confirms that love and its deficiency fundamentally alter our body’s biochemistry, which in turn alters how our DNA gets expressed within our cells.

The love that we do or do not receive today literally changes the key aspects of our cells tomorrow – cells that affect our physical and emotional health, vitality and overall well-being. The more love we experience, the more we open up and become happier and healthier. 

Spending money on experiences that allow us to spend more quality time with the people we love is an excellent way to give and receive more love.

3. Spend Money On Strangers

Remember how you felt when you helped someone in need without expecting anything back? Did you like that warm and fuzzy feeling of sincere giving?

We know that charitable giving is beneficial to us economically (through tax breaks) and socially (by indicating wealth and status); however, one of the most overlooked benefits of giving is that giving makes us happy.

Multiple studies show that spending money on others is directly associated with greater happiness. It turns out that sincere giving stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward centers and makes givers feel good about their actions. Scientists believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing a feeling known as the helper’s high. On top of that, sincere giving promotes a sense of trust, cooperation and social connection, and evokes a sense of gratitude.

Giving brings happiness and happiness brings giving in a circular cause-effect relationship.

The cool part is that it’s not how much, but how we spend our money on others that influences our happiness level. By the way, donating your time counts as well. So whether you buy thoughtful gifts, volunteer your time or donate money to charity, don’t be surprised if you experience a burst of happiness in the process.

There are endless ways to experience the joy of giving, but here is the catch: expect nothing in return. Extensive scientific research shows that as soon as we start giving for selfish reasons, we immediately lose all psychological benefits of giving, meaning that we actually rob ourselves of our happiness. Interesting, huh?

4. Spend Money To Buy Time

The best things in life may be free; however, we need time to enjoy them, right?

Happy, successful people know that time is one of the most precious things money can buy, and they hire other people to do what’s not worth spending their time on.

Unfortunately, many of us were raised with the unconscious belief that, to save money, we have to do everything ourselves. Most of us were never taught that when we outsource and delegate the things that we don’t like doing, we create space for more enjoyable, fulfilling work that can pay not only for the services we hire but also many extras. And that’s aside from the fact that doing the work we love noticeably increases our sense of happiness in the first place!

Life is way too short to only do the things we have to do; it is barely long enough to the things we want to do.

 Sidney J. Harris put it this way, “Time is love, above all else. It’s the most precious commodity in the world, and should be lavished on those we care most about.”

5. Spend Money To Buy Quality

And by quality I mean the quality of life.

I’m not only talking about buying a luxury car to make your drive to work more comfortable; I’m talking about getting a house close to your place of work so that you don’t waste hours of your life in traffic.

I’m talking about hiring expensive professionals instead of cheap amateurs (and paying a high price for their advice later).

I’m talking about taking long vacations to recharge your body, mind and soul instead of running on fumes in the rat race.

I’m talking about moving to a city/state/country where you want to live and making it work instead of waiting to do it “someday” (that never comes).

I’m talking about living your life by design, not by default. I’m talking and your choices – big and small – that determine the quality of your every-day life: how content and inspired you are, how loving and fulfilling your most important relationships are, how nutritious your diet is, how much sleep you get on any given day, how much excitement is happening in the bedroom…

By the way, research shows that the quality of your marriage directly affects your effectiveness and leadership skills, so whatever you can do to make it better (and, consequently, improve the quality of your life) does count.

Now, I understand that you might find yourself in difficult circumstances with fewer resources, and you might not be in the position to make bold moves. However, even small steps can take you amazing places if you choose to consistently move in the right direction. The word that’s worth repeating here is consistently.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, money can buy happiness, and it’s not so much about how much money you have, but what you choose to do with it. When you spend money on things that are meaningful, fulfilling, engaging and fun – whether it’s surprising your loved ones, crossing things off your bucket list or selflessly helping others – you can’t help it but experience a big dose of happiness in the process.

It hit me hard that life is too short to be unhappy and unfulfilled when – not too long ago – I had emergency open heart surgery. I realized that if I died in surgery, I would have died with a lot of regrets.  

Over four decades of studies revealed what even the most successful people regret on their deathbed. Guess what the top regrets of the dying are?

  • They grieve over their dreams that have gone unfulfilled
  • They wish they hadn’t worked so hard
  • They regret making money at the expense of relationships
  • They wish they had taken the time to love more and to express their love
  • They regret not staying in touch with friends and not giving the friendships the time and effort they deserved
  • And the biggest one of all: they wish they had let themselves be happier and they regret postponing their happiness to “someday”.

This is not what I want for you and I know this not what you desire for yourself. You are fully funded by the Universe, and you have everything you need to create a regret-free life, starting right now. You are smart and resourceful, and there is so much out there for you. Go get it, tiger!

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