Jonathan’s Story: Five Takeaways from Happiness Research

HOW SHOULD WE SPEND our time and money? This is a question we all wrestle with. Indeed, it’s an issue that’s become an increasing preoccupation for me as I’ve grown older. Partly, that’s because time is shorter and hence seems more precious. Partly, it’s because money is less of a constraint and hence I have more choice.

In all this, my thinking has been heavily influenced by academic studies. Here are five insights that have been highlighted by the research—and what they’ve meant for me:

1. When surveyed, those with higher incomes are more likely to say they’re happy, and yet research has also found that day-to-day happiness is no greater among those with high incomes. What explains this contradiction? It could be a so-called focusing illusion: When asked about satisfaction with their life, higher-income folks may contemplate their financial good fortune—and that prompts them to say they’re happy.

This has two implications. First, folks with heaps of money are likely no happier than the rest of us, so there’s no need to be envious. Second, happiness seems to hinge partly on what we focus on. I try to keep in mind how lucky I am to spend my days doing work I’m passionate about and to spend my evenings surrounded by those I love.

2. We should use our money to purchase experiences, not possessions. The wisdom of this insight has become clearer to me as I’ve grown older. You won’t find me wasting money on expensive cars. But I’m happy to pay for dinners out and family vacations.

3. Make time for friends and family. This is closely related to insight No. 2. One reason experiences bring so much happiness is that they’re often shared with others. Eating alone in a restaurant can be a dreary experience. Eating out with friends is almost always great fun. Spurred on by the research, I’ve made a point of trying to see friends and family more often. Sometimes, it seems like an effort. But it’s an effort I rarely regret.

4. Shorten your commute. Research suggests that, for many folks, commuting is the unhappiest time of their day. In 2011, I took this research to heart and moved closer to work, cutting my commute from more than an hour to just 20 minutes. Today, my commute is even shorter—about 40 feet, which is the distance from my bed to the coffee machine to my desk.

5. Engage in work you’re passionate about. As my financial need to work has waned, my desire to work has grown. What’s made the difference? Today, I only take on work that truly interests me. While there are many things I don’t want to do, there are also plenty of projects that I feel are worth my time and energy—and, since I started working for myself in 2014, I’ve found that I’m busier than ever.

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