A blog to share my thoughts about trading, frugal living, money and the economy. Occasionally I might even throw in a few things about better living, technology, futurism, and science but these are always in some way related to finances or speculation.

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Location: Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, United States

"I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How NOT to buy happiness

Well, I think "How to buy happiness" would be a more constructive topic, but the basis of my title comes from an interesting research paper I stumbled upon a while back from the MIT Press: How not to buy happiness by Robert H. Frank. Here's a brief excerpt:

"An enduring paradox in the literature on human happiness is that although the rich are significantly happier than the poor within any country at any moment, average happiness levels change very little as people’s incomes rise in tandem over time.1 Richard Easterlin and others have interpreted these observations to mean that happiness depends on relative rather than absolute income.

"In this essay I offer a slightly different interpretation of the evidence–namely, that gains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes.

"In effect, I wish to propose two different answers to the question “Does money buy happiness?” Considerable evidence suggests that if we use an increase in our incomes, as many of us do, simply to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars, then we do not end up any happier than before. But if we use an increase in our incomes to buy more of certain inconspicuous goods–such as freedom from a long commute or a stressful job–then the evidence paints a very different picture. The less we spend on conspicuous consumption goods, the better we can afford to alleviate congestion; and the more time we can devote to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities. On the best available evidence, reallocating our time and money in these and similar ways would result in healthier, longer– and happier–lives. "

I'd like to go beyond the philosophical or a discussion limited to this research alone and actually discuss my ideas for "long term happiness bang for the buck" if such a thing makes any sense. The goal is to devote more time "to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities" with the result of "healthier, longer– and happier–lives" (to quote the above article).

The things already mentioned in the research are the obvious (save money instead of wasting it, so you can ultimately work fewer hours. Find a job and/or house that enables shorter commute times. Do not move towards isolation - i.e. no neighbors).

Happiness and long life are highly correlated. Many of the ideas for achieving both involve reducing stress. This recent article on aging covers many of the categories mentioned in the Robert Frank article.

Some other ideas:

Category - exercise

Join some amateur sports team or activity. Not only is it great exercise, but it can make for good comradery with friends. A friend of mine just got really into road biking - he does this with coworkers several times a week. My brother races "quads" with his father in law. I joined an indoor soccer league last winter (hadn't played soccer in over 15 years, and there were people there of all ages). I also took up kayaking a couple years ago, which ties in well with camping vacations (which are also cheap by the way!). To me, hiking & camping, going out in nature, are very "restorative".

Category - family

I'm a big believer in "the family vacation", which is typically a week out of the year, but if you can get away with it, do it more often. Anyway, one of the most memorable vacations I've taken was actually a trip my wife and I took with my in-laws. We rented a house (cheaper than hotels and more amenities!) in a tropical island, and had a blast. One thing we do is take "crazy pictures" (funny pictures) which just seems to make the whole experience all the more fun and memorable. Anyway, even though its been a couple years, every time I think about that vacation I can't help but smile. I think another thing that contributes to happiness is trying new things, and perhaps just as worthwhile - being with people you love when they try new things (which incidentally, I think is where the major joy of raising your own kids probably comes from). For example, being with my in-laws as they experienced snorkeling and deep sea fishing for the first time was immensely entertaining.

Another in this category: You would not believe how many strange reactions I get when I tell people every Wednesday night is "date night" with my wife. "Why do you still date, aren't you already married?" or "Every week?". Yes, once a week "date night" with the spouse definitely fills the "happy" meter, plus its something to look forward to in the middle of the week. And no, we aren't newlyweds. In fact, we didn't start the official "date night" until after several years of marriage. Throwing something crazy into the mix is always good for creating memories that will last a lifetime, but they don't always have to be elaborate either. Making a meal together, or just going for a walk while discussing something interesting all qualify.

Finally - an idea I think my wife and I invented that may sound strange but you should try it. This could just as easily be in the friends category by the way... Rent a comedy movie, and decide ahead of time that you are going to laugh at everything, even if it isn't really funny. The mere fact that other people are laughing will force you to laugh anyway, this is SO MUCH fun. Just make sure everyone in the room is fully on board with the concept before the movie starts or you won't get the desired effect. The thing is, you won't know at the end of the movie if it was actually a great comedy, or if you just made it feel like one. Either way - you will have a great time and feel great afterwards. I think laughter is probably one of the best things you can do for your physical & mental health. One thing I've heard of is "laughter groups" which seems almost a little TOO odd but I wouldn't mind trying it ONCE maybe. These groups of people just get together and start laughing - at absolutely nothing. At first its forced, but after a few seconds, you can't control it and you are just laughing because everyone else is. It's supposedly very therapeutic, but I don't know how you find these groups or where they exist (I'll probably stick to the movie idea).

Category - friends

I think just spending more time with friends and neighbors is key. I know its almost cliche now, but since the whole poker craze began, I've been playing cards with neighbors once a month (about 10 guys). I definitely enjoy this a lot and would consider it "restorative". Assuming your skills are as good as everyone else's this shouldn't cost you any money over time. That's what they keep telling me anyway ;)

Inviting groups of people over for "game night" also falls in this category. These can be some of the most entertaining nights of the year. Also a good way to get to know new people. Some games that are good for this: Cranium, Scatergories, Mad Gab, I know there are many others... with smaller groups, yahtzee, dominos, card games, etc. millions of great choices.

Vacations, cookouts, camping, hiking, etc. can all apply to the "friends" category.

Category - sleep

OK - it might seem odd to even include this category. But I have a couple of thoughts on this. First - I am a much happier person when I get 8 hours of sleep. I've actually done a LOT of "sleep research". Not everyone has the same sleep requirements, some only need 7 hours, others need 9. If you find yourself "sleeping in" on weekends (or sleeping longer), its actually a sure sign that you aren't getting enough sleep during the week. Your health suffers when you don't get enough sleep.

Dreaming - somewhat unrelated to the above, but another hobby of mine that falls into the "sleep" category is Lucid Dreaming. I don't want to get too far off course - so if you are interested - just follow my link or see if your library has the book "Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming" by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D. and Howard Rheingold. There are many books on the subject, but that one is the best (and incidentally, the only book on the subject I've found to be worth reading!). Anyway, most people don't realize that you can even increase your happiness WHILE YOU SLEEP!

Category - giving

This is the only category not mentioned in the original article. Anyway, I think giving to charity is another way to "buy happiness" so to speak. Things like habitat for humanity (helping to build a house for someone in a desperate situation), or the million other service organizations out there. I'm involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters where I mentor a boy - we basically just get together a couple times a month - play baseball, watch movies, hang out. There are millions of kids growing up with no father present - while you might not think you can do anything to make a difference - you can. Similarly I give financially to causes that help underprivileged children in 3rd world countries. Note: I don't give either time or money because I expect "happiness" out of it, I just think that the more people in general who give, the better off society is - which leads to higher overall "happiness". I also think everyone's quality of life improves when there are fewer people living in desperation or involved in crime, etc. I'm also motivated because I am a Christian, and I just know inside it's the right thing to do.

Well - I've rambled for way to long... I would really love to see others' ideas as I've never really come across a discussion of this before.

I know some readers might be wondering, "What's this have to do with finances?" And my response is: "EVERYTHING!".


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