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Money Can Buy Happiness: Here's a Shopping List

It turns out you can buy happiness, if you deploy your assets wisely. That seems to be the takeaway from research released recently by polling companies Harris and Gallup. The Harris study found that people with higher incomes tended to be happier than people with lower incomes. The Gallup study said that older people were happier than younger people. Even Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in with a happiness hypothesis in a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina, telling graduates, "on average ... citizens of richer countries report higher levels of life satisfaction, no doubt in part because they tend to be healthier, to have more leisure time to pursue hobbies or socialize, and to have more interesting work," he said.

So money helps, but as Bernanke hinted, the happiest guy isn't the one with the most toys. "What... (people) do with their money matters much more to their well-being than how much money they have" Gallup researchers concluded.

Here's how to use what you have to maximize your money-to-joy ratio:

  • Buy less house than you can afford. That will make you happier in two distinct ways. First, you won't be up nights worrying about your mortgage. And second, it turns out that people are less happy when the Joneses next door have more money than they do. People would rather have an annual income of $50,000 and be surrounded by folks making $25,000 than they would with an income of $100,000 if all of their neighbors were in the $200,000 bracket, Gallup found.
  • Buy tickets. Experiences are what really makes you happy, not stuff, say happiness researchers. Concerts, sporting events, and vacations are all good things to spend your money on.
  • Join a gym or buy a bike, or take dance lessons. You've seen the research about endorphins and exercise. Spend some of your money making sure you regularly move your body rapidly enough to flood your bloodstream with those feel-good chemicals.
  • Buy a newspaper. People who talk about important issues of the day -- the depressing economy, the depressing Gulf oil spill, the depressing Middle East -- are happier than those who keep it light and focused on the weather, said Harris researchers, who hypothesize that talking about important topics keeps people from privately obsessing and worrying about them.
  • Buy tools. People feel good when they are productive. So treat yourself to that garden tiller, sewing machine, food processor, tile cutter, or table saw.
  • Throw a lot of parties. Having close ties with family, friends, and community correlates strongly with happiness. The problem with most consumption-based happiness is that we adapt to it. But "it's very good for human beings that they don't adapt in the same way to, for instance, cherished personal relations, friendships, and affection for children," Sissela Bok, another happiness researcher and author, told Jim Lehrer in a compelling segment about happiness on the PBS Newshour last night.
  • Give it away. Happiness has long been linked to charitable behavior, so be generous. And even if you're not rich, being a philanthropist can make you feel like you are.

Photo by Nanagyei on Flickr.

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