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By Contributing Mama Jordana Bales

Everyone wants to be happy. But how do we get there?

I recently previewed a new PBS mini-series on emotions called This Emotional Life. One of the featured panelists was Dan Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology, at Harvard. He studies happiness. He discussed what makes us happy and compared it with the advice he got from his mom – “1) Find a spouse (and it wouldn’t hurt if she was Jewish!) 2) Find a job (and it wouldn’t hurt if it gave you a nice living. 3) Have some kids (and it wouldn’t hurt if it was soon).”

Dr. Gilbert then went on to analyze whether these “guides for happiness” actually passed any scientific muster. It turns out they do – and don’t.

1) Does marriage make you happier? The answer is yes…mostly. In general, married people tend to be happier than their single counterparts. Of course, this leads to the question of the ages, which comes first the chicken or the egg – or in this case the smile or the ceremony.

Are married people happier or do happier people tend to get married? It’s not possible to answer that question but an important thing to remember is when someone gets married  their average level of happiness increases “for a period of time.” That period of time varies from 5 – 10 years.

2) Does money buy happiness? Again, the answer is yes, up to a point. The biggest increase in happiness with money is when someone very poor increases their income. After that, the more money you have, the more money you need to increase happiness levels. So, unless you’re at the poverty line more money probably isn’t going to increase your happiness.

And in fact, the best thing to do with money to increase your happiness level is spend it on others. A study was conducted where people were given $20 and told to spend it any way they liked. The people that spent it on others reported greater happiness than those that spent it on themselves. And that even includes people that spent the whole $20 on candy and ate it themselves (Okay, so he didn’t mention that but that’s certainly my idea of happiness!).

3) Lastly, does having kids increase happiness? Sadly, there is a slight NEGATIVE correlation between having children and happiness. Dr. Gilbert said this doesn’t mean our little “bundles of joy” aren’t giving us joy – rather they’re taking our joy away from other activities we like (such as sex or sleeping!).

In the Psychology class I teach we talk about stress and how stress negatively affects our happiness level. It’s been shown that “daily hassles” increase stress more significantly than major life changes. My feeling is that as much as we love our little monkeys, the day-to-day dealing of them can be quite stressful and it’s these little interactions that lower our happiness level.

So, if you want to be happy – get married, spend your money on others and don’t have kids. Too late for most of us, but I wouldn’t trade my little girls for anything in the world. Plus, who else could I spend all my money on?

This Emotional Life airs in January on PBS.

9 Responses to the secret of happiness

  • stoneskin says:

    Well if you like I’ll give you my account details and you could transfer some in…

    Babies are so exhausting there are times when us parents (having had no sex or sleep or lie-ins) are not that happy…but oh the little monkeys are worth it.

  • Jeanne says:

    What about grandkids? All the fun (and the opportunities to spend money on others) and hardly any of the stress.

    I’m thinking grandkids are the way to go….

  • Having children gave me the most stress of my life – first infertility when I couldn’t have them and then postpartum depression that sucked the life out of me (that and the breastfeeding) BUT with some therapy I have learned to let go of my perfectionistic expectations that I was always supposed to be there for them, ALL the time. It has helped me destress, that and yoga!! And the fact that they are getting a little older and I”m teaching them to take care of themselves bit by bit.

  • Marinka says:

    Interesting. studies like this frustrate me because “yes, being married increases happiness, unless you’re married to Claus von Bulow”. And ITA with stoneskin. I’ll give you my banking info. So that you can be happy!

  • Scary Mommy says:

    That is pretty interesting.

    It’s funny because when I think about the “happiest” time in my life, I recall being a newlywed with 2 salaries, a puppy and great figure.

    I am so much more joyful and blessed and fulfilled now, but I wouldn’t define it as purely happy. It’s so much more complicated than that.

  • Lucy Cooper says:

    I’m actually relieved to see that third one. I love my children immensely, and they are a big part of my life’s happiness…and also, my day to day stress! What a confusing relationship.

  • Aunt Marcia (Guess Whose?) says:

    I’m glad to know that my happiness comes from not being married (or in a very long term relationship), not having any children (but being able to love other people’s children) and having $$$ to spend on people I love (mostly I love myself). So how come I’m so ‘happy’ when I really shouldn’t be???

  • Lewis Baden says:

    Happiness for me is spending time with those I love. I love spending time with your two “little monkeys” as well as you and your husband. Good times Jo.

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