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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Resolve, and a plan, are keys to achieving your goals

I would never want to underestimate the power of resolve, that state of mind where tenacity and firm determination help you accomplish something difficult or out of the ordinary. I would say I had resolve, for example, when I earned my college degree – and paid for my education myself. But I have to admit that I wouldn’t consider myself a resolute person.

That’s one reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Another reason is that resolutions usually don’t lead to the success you hoped for. A resolution presumes you can change things in your life just by making the decision to do so. On the contrary, true and lasting change is most often the result of making a commitment, followed by series of deliberate choices.

Though resolutions can help you to identify areas of your life that you would like to improve, such as your health, your relationships, or your finances, they can’t give you any concrete measure of success along the way. This is largely because resolutions are typically expressed in broad, shapeless statements, such as, “I will enjoy life more this year.” Or “This will be the year I finally get my finances under control.”

Without a clear picture of what it means to enjoy life more or have your finances under control, you’ll likely abandon your resolutions. As a result, you’ll end up feeling discouraged—even powerless—to affect change in your life.

Thankfully, there is a more effective way to accomplish what you want to do in 2011. By setting goals, instead of making resolutions, you’ll be able to create a more realistic, successful plan for the year to come. Goal setting will let you take the statement, “I will enjoy life more this year” and turn it into a series of measurable steps.

To begin, you need to ask yourself this basic question: What will I need to do in order to enjoy my life more? Do you need to work less, carve out more time for hobbies, or reduce your debt? Will being better organized or cooking more meals at home help you reduce stress and improve your life? Or, will starting an exercise plan move you closer to the life you desire?

Next, you can set attainable goals. If you want more time to enjoy a favorite hobby, for example, what else are you willing to give up? If you want to devote more time to writing, you may need to get up a few minutes earlier, spend less time online, or commit to writing during your lunch hour. Your goal, then, might be something like this: I will get up early three days a week and write for at least 30 minutes.

With this goal, you’ll know if you’re making progress. You’ll also recognize when your plan isn’t working. If you end up hitting the snooze button four times, rather than getting up to write, you may want to adjust your goal and write for 20 minutes in the evening.

You can apply the same methods to other types of goals, as well. If you want to pay down your debt this year, determine how much you can realistically afford to repay. Then, consider ways you can reach your goal; taking a part-time job, selling an asset, or redirecting money you normally would have spent on eating out are all possible options.

Setting a goal as we start a new year is a worthy task. If you map out small steps to achieve your goal and resolve to stick with them, you can change your finances, or your life, for the better.