My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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This Wednesday: Eight tips for how money CAN buy you happiness.

DollarbillEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for how money CAN buy you happiness.

I think that the relationship between money and happiness is one of the most interesting, most complicated, and most sensitive questions in the study of happiness.

Studies show, unsurprisingly, that money’s impact on happiness is greatest when you have the least amount of money.

But if you’re one of the lucky people who has enough money to cover the basics – food, shelter, even a car — does that mean that money can’t make a difference to your happiness?

Some happiness experts argue yes, but I think that’s…ridiculous.

The secret to using money to buy happiness is to spend money in ways that support your happiness goals.

Imagine that you have a certain amount of extra cash. How should you spend it?

One option: a fancy new TV set. Enticing. The fact is, however, that the new TV won’t give you much happiness bang for your buck. The “hedonic treadmill” describes our tendency to adapt quickly to changed circumstances — which means you’ll get a big kick out of the TV for a short while, but you’ll soon take it for granted.

The hedonic treadmill means that buying STUFF isn’t very satisfying, but there are ways to spend money that are likely to help give you enduring happiness. Spend money to…

1. Strengthen bonds with family and friends. Studies show that having close relationships is one of the most important elements of a happy life. Pay for a plane ticket to visit your brother’s new baby, go to your college reunion, throw a Superbowl party.

2. End marital conflict. If you’re constantly arguing about the unkempt lawn, or the moldering laundry, see if you can throw some money at the problem. Can you hire the teenager down the street to clean out the garage?

3. Upgrade your exercise. Studies show that one of the quickest and surest ways to boost your mood is to exercise. If spending money on a new iPod, a more convenient gym, or a new pair of yoga pants will make it easier to get yourself off the couch, that’s a good happiness investment.

4. Think about fun. Ask yourself – and be honest – what’s fun for you? Fishing, bird-watching, travel, hunting through flea markets, experimenting in the kitchen, skiing, scrapbooking? Make sure that your calendar reflects some activities that you are doing just for FUN. For happiness, you’re better off using your money to have a great experience than to gain a possession.

5. Serenity and security. Peace of mind is critical to happiness, so use the money to pay down your debts or to add to your savings.

6. Pay more for healthy food. It’s a sad fact that fruits, vegetables, and healthy food are more expensive than fast food, but eating healthfully will pay off in the long run, in terms of your good health and energy.

7. Spend the money on someone else. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make someone else happy. Think about ways you could spend the money that would make a big difference to someone else — whether someone you know, or a cause you support. How many new books could the library’s children’s room add to the shelves?

8. Think about YOUR priorities. Two years ago, some friends decided to skip an anniversary trip so they could use the money to buy a super-expensive Dux bed. I thought this was a bad idea, because the “hedonic treadmill” would mean that they’d quickly get used to the new bed. Oh, no. They still rave about their Dux bed. So maybe that fancy new TV set would mean a lot to you, although I, for one, would hardly notice the difference. As always, the key to any happiness question is to know yourself, and what makes YOU happy.

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My second earth-shattering insight about happiness: how to make yourself happy, and other people happy, too.

Weston_pepperMy first ground-breaking insight into happiness is, of course, that to be happy, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Now I’ve arrived at my second earth-shattering insight about happiness. I’m not sure why it took me so long to see this clearly, because I’ve understood the principles involved for a very long time, and now it seems so obvious, but there’s a circularity to it (see below) that confused me.

Here it is:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

This is tremendously important. It’s absolutely true.

Someone who was very, very nice to me when I was just starting this blog was Chris Brogan. He picked up my Wednesday tips at the wonderful site, Lifehack, he gave me advice about podcasting, and most important, he didn’t make me feel like my questions as a new blogger were ridiculous. I read his blog, Chris Brogan, to keep up with his many adventures, although many of said adventures are a bit too techy for me to understand.

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One key to happiness: setting a target goal of making 3 new friends.

ThreeOne thing is clear: a major key to happiness – in fact, the major key – is having close relationships with other people. We need close, long-term relationships, we need to be able to confide in others, we need to belong, we enjoy activities more when we’re with other people. This is true not just of extraverts, but of introverts, as well.

In fact, people who claim to have at least five friends with whom they can discuss important problems are 60% more likely to describe themselves as “very happy.”

Unfortunately, a study published by the American Sociological Review in 2006 shows the average American has only two close friends, and almost a quarter of Americans have no friend in whom they can confide – a number that has doubled in the last two decades. (On the good side, family ties are strengthening.)

One of my main areas of concentration for the happiness project has been to try to stay closer to my friends and to make more friends.

One strategy I’ve adopted for making more friends may sound a little cold-blooded and calculating, but it has really worked for me.

I set myself a friend TARGET GOAL.

When I enter a situation where I’m meeting new people, I set myself the goal of making three new friends. So, for example, when the Little Girl starts pre-school in September, and I’m meeting a lot of new parents, I’ll be looking for my three friends.

I know it sounds artificial, but I’ve been trying this approach for a few years, and it works well. It changes my attitude from, “Do I like you? Do you like me? Do we have time to talk?” to “Are you someone who will be one of my three friends?” Somehow, this slight shift makes me behave differently, it makes me more open to people, it prompts me to make the effort to go beyond everyday chit-chat.

Because I feel busy and sometimes overwhelmed, I have a tendency to say to myself, “I don’t have time to meet new people or make new friends.” But that’s not true. I do have time, and making a new friend is tremendously energizing, not enervating.

Not all such friends have turned into close friends. Some I never see outside the context in which I first met them. But still, I feel like there’s a stronger connection between us – perhaps wholly one-sided, true, but still real.

And I know I’ve made more closer friends than I otherwise would have done.

I’ve also realized that “being friends” means different things in different stages in of life. In college, I spent hours each day with my friends. These days I don’t spend nearly that much time with the Big Man. That’s okay.

Productivity 501 has a great post about what to do when people come to your office to distract you. Lots of easy, practical, not-rude suggestions: take notes, talk to them while you’re standing up, don’t have a visitor’s chair, etc.

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What Harry Potter has in common with the Olympics, the World Cup, and American Idol.

HarrypotterI don’t follow the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or American Idol, so I never realized how MUCH FUN it is to be swept up in a national frenzy of anticipation.

A friend and I went to stand in line outside the Barnes and Noble at Union Square, to pick up the wristbands that would give us a place in line to buy the books tonight after 12:01. The line wrapped around the block, and we waited for two hours to get number 348.

It was a pain, but it was also a lot of fun.

I’ve seen people all over the city carrying copies of various Harry Potter books under their arms. I saw a hip girl with a t-shirt that read, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” A guy on the subway saw our Barnes and Noble schedule and asked us about the countdown party.

It’s thrilling to realize that so many strangers are as excited as I am. Being a participant in this mass enthusiasm is really making me happy. The whole city seems friendlier.

Maybe I’ll start watching the Olympics.

Via 43 Folders, I saw an interesting post made by Mike Davidson about that perennial subject, how to manage emails. His suggestion: don’t write or send any email that’s longer than 5 sentences. Hmmm….I’m going to give it a shot.

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If you want to encourage people to do something — such as eat their vegetables — why is it a bad idea to give them a prize?

FruitsandvegOne of my most important happiness principles is to “Follow my interests.” Sometimes, I develop a passionate interest in some topic for no apparent reason. I used to try to restrain myself from going off on little research projects, so that I would stay more focused on work, but now I let myself go.

One issue that fascinates me is the rise in obesity in the U.S. Why is it happening? How do we change the trend? So I was very interested to see news reports that $1 billion of nutrition education didn’t seem to have any effect at all at how kids ate.

The theory was that if children understood the health benefits of eating properly, they’d make wiser choices. However, although they did learn nutrition facts, this knowledge didn’t change their eating habits.

In the descriptions of the various programs that appeared in The Week magazine’s “Nutrition Classes Don’t Work” (7/20/07, not available online), a few facts grabbed my attention that might help explain the failure of these programs.

But in practice, kids given free fruit and veggies, a federal study found, were even more likely to turn to junk a year later.” –People generally believe that they get what they pay for, and therefore don’t value free stuff very much. (Is this the ultimate Giffen good?) Giving healthy food away may have sent the signal that no one would ever pay to eat it. This is ironic because in fact, you have to pay more to eat healthy than to eat junk.

“Other programs that offered prizes for eating broccoli, apples, and the like affected eating habits only temporarily.”
–Studies show that rewarding a behavior reduces people’s desire to do that behavior freely. Once the reward stops coming, they quit. For example, in one study, subjects were asked to work on an interesting puzzle. Half the subjects were promised money, the other half weren’t. At one point, the experimenter told the subject that there would be a break before the next phase, and left the subject alone. The subject could continue to work on the puzzle, read, or do nothing. Subjects who had been paid spent less time on the puzzle than those who hadn’t been paid. (I read about this in Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, a study of the problems of using reward to motivate people, recommended by a blog reader, thanks.)

What are the lessons to be gleaned from this? If you want to motivate folks to want to choose to do a certain thing enthusiastically (like eat vegetables or read books), don’t reward them for doing it or behave as though people can’t be expected to want to do it on their own.

Several years ago, we had brunch with a family we didn’t know well. After bagels, everyone got a bowl of strawberries, and the Big Girl said to me in a whiny voice, “I don’t want any strawberries!” and I answered, “Great, all the more for me, I’ll eat yours, too!” And I did.

The other mother looked a bit shocked. She told her daughter, “You can’t have a brownie unless you eat your strawberries.”

It was clear she thought I should have coaxed the Big Girl into eating the strawberries instead of eating them myself, and I’ve always felt a bit guilty about my reaction. But hey, looking at this material makes me think that I may have stumbled on just the right strategy for making her think that eating fruit is something that people want to do.

I’m thrilled, because I just found out I’m in the Technorati “Top 5K,” with a rank of 3,499. Zoikes. How exciting! Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I so much appreciate everyone’s comments, links, blogrolls, RSS subscriptions, email subscriptions, and all the rest.

If you’re new to the Happiness Project, you may want to consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.