Friday, January 14, 2011

Investing in each other, not things, brings lasting happiness

A few nights ago, I sat with my children, husband, and parents in our living room. We’d just shared a pot of chili and homemade blueberry muffins and were sprawled out on couches and chairs. Soon after, my 6-year-old daughter brought over a bowl of small, smooth “story stones.” (Our story stones are rocks decoupaged with pictures of woodland creatures I clipped from an old children’s book.)

She sidled up to my mom, handing her the bowl and pleading for a story. I sat back and listened as my mother plucked stones from the bowl one by one and wove a story about a wayward chipmunk looking for a new home. My daughter listened, too, with rapt attention, and then took the bowl of stones and told her own story. It was the simplest form of entertainment—a meal shared together, followed by a time of storytelling and conversation—and an evening I won’t soon forget.

Such shared experiences, according to scientists, have a significant influence on individual happiness. In fact, several published studies have concluded that time spent building relationships makes people far happier than getting any new material possessions, even so-called luxury items. In part, this is because the initial pleasure of getting something new, such as a computer or car, fades so quickly.

Just how quickly a person’s exuberance over a new purchase wanes is astonishing. Psychologists report that we typically get used to seeing a new purchase, and therefore adapt to it, in a matter of six to eight weeks, or three months at best. This phenomenon, known as “hedonistic adaptation,” explains why lottery winners return to their original level of happiness not long after they’ve collected their winnings.

On the other hand, when we invest our time in relationships and in collective experiences, we create memories that we can draw on for many years to come. Unlike material possessions, our memories generally make us feel more alive, according to assistant professor of psychology Ryan Howell.

It seems that investing in other people’s happiness pays dividends, too. A 2008 study from Harvard Medical School and the University of San Diego concluded that your happiness is not only influenced by the people that you know, but by people they know. In other words, you’re more likely to be happy if your friends are happy, and even if your friends’ friends are happy.

It’s amazing to think that happiness has this kind of domino effect, indirectly spreading to a vast network of people, even influencing someone whom you may have never even met. It makes sense, then, for you to cultivate relationships in deliberate and meaningful ways.

The beauty of being intentional with your relationships is that it doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor. For example, you might host a neighborhood potluck or write a hand-written note to a friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. Play a board game with your spouse in the evening, or take a child on an individual “date” and share a piece of dessert. You could invite a group of friends to start a supper club or undertake a volunteer project together. Or you might consider joining a group that is devoted to something you enjoy, such as gardening, archery or French.

No matter how tight your budget is, you have the ability to create a richer, happier life - right now - by simply investing your time, love and talent in those closest to you. Happiness doesn’t depend on more money or the latest gadget. In tough economic times, that’s refreshing, encouraging news for us all.

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