The Science of Happiness

October 15, 2012

What Makes People the Happiest? Clue: It’s not money

Does more money make people happy? Scientists are currently exploring that question and the results might -surprise you. As a financial advisor I became interested in the new science of happiness since the main reason people come to me for financial advice is because they want help in making decisions today that will help them to create a better future. I wanted to see how I could help my clients make better decisions that would create more happiness now and in their future. As I learned more about the science of happiness, a couple of interesting things happened. First, I became very passionate about the topic. Second, I realized that contrary to conventional wisdom, everyone has a different idea of what happiness is.

The challenge is that most people don’t even know what will make them happy and fulfilled. So they chase money instead hoping that if they get enough of it they will become happy. Unfortunately, that strategy never works. That is where positive psychology, or the science of happiness comes in. Researchers have discovered that getting rich will not make you happy. However, getting in touch with your authentic self and your vision of an ideal future and then aligning your life with your vision will, indeed, make you happy.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, notes that happiness is not the only endeavor that is an end in itself. Once human beings meet their survival needs, they turn their energies to the pursuit of happiness. Everything they strive for has only one goal—to put them in the positive emotional state of happiness, contentment and fulfillment.

In terms of happiness, my goal as an advisor is to help define my client’s visions and aid them in developing a plan to achieve their dreams and aspirations. As an example, I am reminded of the story of a future client who stopped by a financial advisor’s office looking very anxious. He dropped a stack of papers on the advisor’s desk and said, “I need to know if I have enough to retire. What’s my number?” The advisor thought a minute and pushed the papers aside and asked, “What do you want to do when you retire? How are you going to spend your life?” Looking confused, the potential client said, “I have no idea.” “Well,” the advisor said, “in that case the amount of money on this paper has no meaning. We need to decide what you want to do, what makes your heart sing and what you are passionate about. After that, we can set up a plan.” The man responded by saying, “Thank you. This has been the most important meeting I’ve ever had.”

In this example, the above client realized that it was not numbers and graphs that were important but the most important thing was what he wanted to do with his life. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what these elements are.

So what can we do to get us on the right track to determine what makes us happy? Here are a couple of ideas:
First, define and integrate the following three key elements in your life.

1. Your purpose: This includes what values are most important to you and what your empowering beliefs are.
2. Your passions: These are things that you are vitally interested in and make you feel fully engaged in life.
3. Your personal strengths: These include natural talents, learned skills and the attitudes that make you successful.

If you have trouble getting started on this try the following exercise by answering this question: What do I want my final epitaph to say? Another interesting question to ask yourself is: If you only had six months to live, what would you probably do with your time? These are really powerful exercises that should give you some clues to get you started.

I hope these ideas that I have shared with you will help you to get started to identify what makes you get up in the morning and what puts passion and meaning in your life. When I think of the science of happiness, I am reminded of something one of my high school teachers said to us in class one day. He said, “You know it’s not money, it’s not gravity or physics that make the world go round. What really makes the world go round is the pursuit of happiness.” I suspect that the founders of positive psychology would agree with him.