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Holly Schiffrin (UMW) column on consumer psychology: School's in Recession: Lessons on Being Happier
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Analogously, this same type of intentional activity can increase happiness above the natural set point. The activities that promote happiness are those we have resorted to during the recession because we haven't had as much disposable income as usual, such as staying at home for game or movie nights with family and friends.
The No. 1 predictor of happiness across studies and cultures is good relationships.
Spending time with the people we care about increases positive feelings as well as building social support that we can call on in times of need (a friend to bring us chicken soup when we're sick). This investment in close relationships may have happened out of the necessity of the recession, but could result in unanticipated long-term benefits.
If buying material goods doesn't increase happiness, how can we maximize the benefits of the expendable income we do have? We now know that we will quickly habituate to a large purchase. To offset the tendency to adjust to the positive feelings generated by getting something new, we can make frequent small purchases, such as flowers or a new shirt, instead.
There is evidence that spending money on experiences can increase happiness. Having a picnic or taking a vacation allows us to increase happiness through several mechanisms. First, a shared experience with family or friends can increase the social bonds that are robustly associated with happiness.
Second, savoring the experience in the moment and reminiscing about it afterward are both associated with increased happiness.
We often look back at our experiences with "rose-colored glasses," remembering the positive about the time and the people who shared it with us. Having positive illusions (within reason), rather than dwelling on the negative, is also associated with being happier.
And finally, being grateful for what we have (good friends, our health, etc.), even during difficult economic times, increases happiness. Taking the time to count our blessings and to realize that, while we may not have it as good as we used to, we have it a lot better than most people in the world--that can put things into perspective.
The bottom line: The things we think will make us happy do not make us as happy as we would think. So the question is, will we go back to our old spending habits after economic recovery? Or will we take to heart the lessons we've learned during this recession, making permanent changes in how we spend our time and money that may ultimately increase happiness?
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Holly H. Schiffrin is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington and PCI Certified Parent Coach who conducts research in the area of positive psychology and child development.