Published May 25, 2013
A few years ago, Debbie Jankowski went hunting for a way to bring her life new joy. She found the solution in her bank account. "I had always been thrifty, but I decided it was time to spend money on things that would broaden my world," says Jankowski, who's based in Philadelphia.
She splurged on sightseeing in Ireland and jungle-roaming in Costa Rica with her husband, along with a yoga retreat closer to home. "These outings have refreshed me and given me perspective," she says.
New research confirms what Jankowski discovered: Money can buy happiness—if you spend wisely. We asked experts to explain this and other glee strategies, none of which require rose-colored glasses or doing anything with life's lemons.
Buy some bliss—really
FYI, you won't find it at the mall. "Purchasing things like televisions, clothes and coffee machines won't make you happier overall—but buying experiences maximizes happiness," said Michael Norton, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Research shows that people who purchased concert tickets, a series of crochet lessons or simply a Tuesday night dinner out were happier than those who spent their money on tangible goods.
For one, it's because we humans tend to get maximum pleasure and vitality from social bonding. Yet the payoffs start before you leave home. "The anticipation of an experience can be as valuable a source of happiness as the experience itself," Norton noted. "And for months afterward, recalling the event continues to make you happy." The cherished-memories effect can even work for outings that went awry: Other research finds that people tend to remember things as having been better than they were (which is why people will pay good money to see The Hangover Part III).
Not that there's anything wrong with a little materialism every now and then, Norton said. But the emphasis is on now and then: "We get sick of even the most amazing things in life if we have them all the time." Another strategy: Buy now, consume later. Economists talk about the "pain of paying" effect—the negative feelings of parting with our hard-earned cash. The more time that lapses between shelling out for something and getting it, the happier you'll be with it. That's why Norton preorders books on Amazon: "When it shows up two months later, it feels free!"
Happiness dips when women are about 40 and comes roaring back as they approach 50, finds a study of 500,000 women and men in 72 countries. (For men the slump typically hits at 52.) Scientists haven't yet explained the bliss boomerang, but anyone familiar with what it's like to make dinner, field five PTA calls and pay 2,300 bills in one night might have a theory. "Women in their 40s tend to put themselves last among all the demands they face," said Vivian Diller, a clinical psychologist in New York City. "They get squeezed between the challenges of raising kids and caring for their aging parents, and may feel that life is passing them by."
As kids leave the nest, women have time to nurture themselves again—although there are easy ways to up your happiness right now. "I remind mothers of the safety tip given in airplanes: Put the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can help those in your care," Diller said. Schedule a daily "me" time "that does not budge for anyone or anything, except emergencies," she continued.
You also want to prioritize stuff that truly brings you joy, whether it's Saturday-morning gardening or a weekly racquetball date with your partner. For Carrie Jablonow in Scottsdale, Ariz., focusing on only her most meaningful friendships has helped. "I don't have a few spare moments to give to someone who doesn't make me happy—even responding to a text," she said. "I also no longer bother with uncomfortable clothes. Good-bye, skinny jeans!"
Basking in what's already great about yourself is a more effective route to joy than trying to fix what's not, says Willibald Ruch, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich who studies character strengths and happiness.
Identify your strong suits with the free Values in Action Inventory of Strengths Survey (viacharacter.org). Developed by psychologists, it takes about 15 minutes to fill out, then provides a ranked list of your 24 strongest qualities—anything from creativity to perseverance.
"Think about how you might use your top five strengths in your relationship, at the office and in your free time," said Ruch. People who consistently apply "signature strengths" experience less depression and more happiness.
Make tough stuff work
Yes, even layoffs and broken bones can have silver linings. To use an extreme example, studies of women diagnosed with breast cancer found that the majority experienced numerous positive emotional changes, including new life priorities and more self-confidence—catalysts for happiness. "Not that we wish cancer on anyone, but it's often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California in Riverside and author of The Myths of Happiness. When upheaval strikes, she said, consider how you have improved as a result.
"I had postpartum depression, and while I'm angry that I missed out on my daughter's first weeks of life, I can say that I'm a happier, less-anxious person as a result," said Stephanie Lutz, 35, of Colts Neck, N.J. "I no longer have that perfectionist streak of 'if I can't do it right, I don't want it done at all.' I've learned to go with the flow."
Spend 21 minutes focusing on your relationship
As anyone who has argued with his or her spouse about tackling the pile of mail knows, a good marriage takes effort and time. How about 21 minutes a year? Researchers at Northwestern University tracked the marital bliss of 120 couples. Half of them did a seven-minute exercise three times a year in which they pondered three questions: (1) How would a neutral third party view your recent marital spat? (2) Going forward, what obstacles stand in your way of thinking like this third party during arguments? (3) How might you succeed at thinking like the third party during conflicts—and how would it help your relationship?
Couples who evaluated their relationship this way had less argument-induced stress—and significantly higher levels of happiness and passion—than those who didn't quiz themselves. "Many studies show that marriage quality tends to decline over time," said study author Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology, "so it's important to be proactive."
Try a tearjerker
Maybe watching "The Notebook" isn't most people's idea of a euphoric night in, but a study from Ohio State University finds that the more sadness people experienced during a movie, the greater their reported feelings of happiness were after the flick. Three-tissue movies put us in a thoughtful mood, said study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, professor at Ohio State's School of Communications: "The sadness that you feel as a result of watching unfulfilled love, for instance, can spur you to think about your relationships—and appreciate what you have."
Love your commute
People who walk or bike to the office may be happier than those who drive or take the bus, finds a 2012 study of 800 people in (where else?) Portland, Ore. The reasons are what you'd expect: You're in control of the timing, there's an endorphin rush from exercise and no traffic. But if you have to drive, you can still arrive at the office perky. "Commuting is actually a good time for built-in introspection and reflection," saidTodd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Quit glaring at the cars ahead and think about something for which you're thankful. People who are grateful on a regular basis are more likely to report feeling content, research shows. And by all means, turn on the tunes; listening to music releases dopamine, a mood-enhancing hormone. (Ta-da! Scientific proof that Katy Perry can be good for you.)
Take credit for giving
By all means, donate to Doctors Without Borders. But consider doing closer-to-home good deeds, too: "While giving to charity brings more happiness than spending money on yourself, our research finds that doing things for people you know makes you happiest," Norton said. Gotta love the joy rush you get from the positive feedback.
Fake it till you feel it
When you're bummed out, the mere act of smiling can cheer you up. The reasons for this effect have yet to be pinpointed, but one study at the University of Kansas in Lawrence reveals that flashing a grin slows down your heart rate during stress and chills you out. And if you can't bear to smile? Sadness and the occasional bad mood are natural, too. No human can be happy 24/7, and maybe that's the happiest news of all.