Do the holidays find you frantically butting heads with the mobs at the mall, determined to find that perfect something you know — you just know — is finally going to make your spouse-sister-parent-toddler-teenager happy this year? Once the gifts have been torn open, are you left with an emotional hangover, a sense that, despite all your careful preparations, there's still something missing?
Don't ignore that feeling. Embrace it. Use its energy to discover something so fundamental, so essential to human existence that the founders of our country felt we needed a law to protect it:
The Pursuit of Happiness
Here's the first clue: money won't get you there. "Stuff" won't get you there.
Oh, sure, we all pay lip service to the adage that "Money won't buy happiness." But we don't really believe it. If we did we wouldn't kill ourselves trying to make a few more bucks so we could afford the bigger house, the new cars, the latest electronics, the fastest computer, the "best" school district, the greenest lawn, the brightest teeth, the hot toys for our kids, the designer labels, the "prestigious" colleges.
You know what most people hate about their jobs? Getting there. The commute. So why do hundreds of thousands of us spend two to three hours every workday fuming in our shiny cars? Ask anyone sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-10 east of L.A., or the Long Island Expressway, or the Washington Beltway, why they put themselves through this stress twice a day, five days a week.
Twenty bucks says it's because they can get "more house" further from their place of work. Trouble is, they are hardly there. When they get home from work, their kids are already in bed or out. Dinner is long gone. Next things you know, the kids are gone. Grew up while you were stuck in traffic.
If you need an excuse to step back and possibly step out of the rat race here it is: psychologists have confirmed that, after a certain point, having more money will not make you happier. Trust me, unless you are living in the most abject poverty in this country, you've already reached that "certain point." Let me put it this way, if you have air-conditioning in your place of residence, a color TV., a refrigerator, and more than one pair of decent shoes, you are there. If you are reading this on your personal computer, you are definitely "there."
Which is why two noted psychologists, Drs. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, have proposed the government add a new measurement to its list of "economic indicators": the Well-Being Index.
In an article entitled, "Beyond Money," Diener and Seligman argue that measures such as GDP and retail sales tell only part of the story. Both give us a sense of how wealthy we are as a nation and what we do with our increasing wealth. But neither tells you how this added wealth has impacted how we feel, that is, our level of contentment.
The solid line that arches sharply higher depicts America's every-increasing prosperity, represented by Gross Domestic Product, since 1947. Notice that this takes inflation into account. The dotted line measures how satisfied Americans say they are with their lives. The rather startling conclusion is that, despite being the wealthiest individuals on Earth, we are no less content than our grandparents were 60 years ago!
"After World War Two," says Diener, "Americans were about as satisfied with their lives as they are now. But they were very much poorer than we are today. In the late 1940s, people told themselves, "I ever get an indoor toilet, I'll be really happy."
Today, that's a given for more than 99% of us. But all of the modern conveniences of life- from electric appliances, to automatic transmission cars with electric window controls, to wrinkle-free clothing, to cell phones- have not made us more satisfied with our lives. Quite the contrary.
Aspirations of indoor plumbing have turned into, "If I ever get a second home, I'll be really happy." In other words, according to Diener, despite the fact we are all earning more money than our grandparents every dreamed of (even in inflation-adjusted dollars), our aspirations have gone up faster than our incomes.
Or to put it another way, for most of us, our incomes will never be able to keep up with our material desires. Diener is careful to point out that "it's not bad to want things. But if you get caught up in it you are going to be disappointed."
It's all relative. Literally. It turns out, our sense of well-being, which is more than simply feeling "happy," has a lot to do with how we view ourselves in relation to the folks next door.
"Imagine a society where everyone lived like upper income Americans," says Diener. "You'd still find the comparison effect." In other words, someone earning $500,000 a year would still not be content because they would look at the individual earning $5 million a year and want that instead of what they've got. The 4,000-square-foot house wouldn't suffice; you'd need the 8,000-square-foot house to really feel "happy."
Once our basic needs are met — food, shelter, safety — "materialism becomes a negative predictor of happiness," according to Diener. "Because goals become so unattainable, you never reach them. There always something- more stuff you can buy."
Still not convinced? Ask yourself this: On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (completely) how satisfied are you with your life?
You might find it interesting that the Maasai, an African tribe that Diener and Seligman describe as "a traditional herding people who have no electricity or running water (...) living in huts made from dung," rate themselves about as content as the wealthiest Americans. Pennsylvania's Amish, who also live without electricity — or yachts or luxury SUVs — also rank at the top of the "Life Satisfaction" scale, as do the Inughuits, native people who live in northern Greenland.
Forbes magazine's "richest Americans:" 5.8
Pennsylvania Amish 5.8
African Maasai 5.7
So if material possessions aren't the key to happiness, what is?
It's not so simple. There isn't one single magic factor. It turns out "Happiness" is more of a cocktail-a blend of a number of ingredients. The good news is that these ingredients are readily accessible and even (gasp!) free. But you've got to have the courage to reach out and grab them.
A major contributor to happiness is interpersonal relationships. Or as Barbra Streisand might put it, "People. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world!" I am not talking about needy, energy-sucking "takers." Instead, happy people need to give to others, care about others, be cared for by others. As Diener and Seligman write, "Supportive, positive social relationships are necessary for well-being."
In other words, you might have a 60-inch plasma screen TV and stereo surround sound, but if you are watching it all by yourself on Saturday night, you are probably not as content as that Maasai grandmother sitting at the campfire surrounded by her 14 grandkids.
Or that bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. Or the person who volunteers to read to kids in the hospital. Or the neighbor who offers to put up your Christmas lights because you've been sick.
Other ingredients that lead to a happier life include having meaningful pursuits, a sense of spirituality, and feeling as if you are respected. In fact, many people rate feeling respected at work as more important than making more money. Another factor is a sense that you have some control over your life.
Bah, humbug! Who has time for happiness? Look at all the things that are wrong with this world: war, taxes, crime, sickness, terrorism, global warming, crab grass, etc. How can you possibly be happy when all this is going on?
The answer is you can't always be happy or "satisfied" with your life. (Even the "richest" Americans only rank themselves a 5.8 out of 7.) Sure, life isn't perfect. The point is, it's easier to cope with the negative things we all inevitably encounter if you have built supportive relationships and feel as if your life has a purpose beyond "making money."
But even if you are just in it for the money, it turns out that people who rank higher on the life satisfaction scale, usually end up earning higher incomes. Thus, happiness leads to things that further increase your level of... happiness! "Happy people are more sociable, more likely to marry and stay married. They are more likely to do volunteer work and contribute to their community," says Diener.
On the other hand, there is evidence that being unhappy can make you unhealthy. All those negative feelings weaken your immune system. "Unhappiness isn't undesirable just because it feels bad," says Diener. "It's also not beneficial to the individual or the greater society."
Employees who derive satisfaction from jobs that are challenging, provide social contact, and are a means of achieving respect, are more productive. Their companies have lower turnover, less accidents, and happier customers. They are also more profitable.
On a larger scale, citizens who feel a bond with each other and their leaders, are more content. Think about how Americans of every walk of life pulled together after 9/11 — the sense of unity we felt no matter where we lived or how much income we had. How we all wanted to reach out to help those who had been affected. Some responded by volunteering their time to help dig out the World Trade Center, others gave blood, millions sent money. No one would describe the tragic events of that day as "happy," but they drew us together in a common bond. In our pain and anger and anguish we reached out to others. Neighbors who barely said hello on the street stopped to talk, to connect.
And it felt good.
And then we gradually fell back into our old patterns.
So as you head out to engage in consumer combat at the mall, just try to keep it all in perspective. Money can't buy the "perfect" gift. Spend half as much time shopping and use the extra hours to bake cookies with your kids. Or visit someone in a nursing home.
You, yourself, are the perfect gift.
All the best,
If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org , along with your name and phone number.
Gail Buckner and Foxnews.com regret that all letters cannot be addressed and that some might be combined in order to more completely address a topic.
To access Gail's past columns, simply use our new "Search" function: type in "Buckner" and you'll be able to get all Your $ Matters columns since April 2001.
The views expressed in this article are those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Putnam Investments Inc. or any of its affiliates. You should consult your own financial adviser for advice regarding your particular financial circumstances. This article is for information only and is not an offer of the sale of any mutual fund or other investment.