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I wish everyone could experience being rich and famous, so they could know it wasn’t the answer to anything.” –Jim Carey

In the last 100 years, science has come a very long way in understanding happiness. And you can use this research to enrich your life, avoid regret, and maybe even live longer.

In his incredible TED Talk on happiness, Dr. Robert Waldinger quotes a recent survey of millennial’s, where more than 80% of them said their main life goal was to become rich—and 50% of them said their goal in life was to become famous—so they could be happy.

These happiness traps are thousands of years old. We are chasing the same things we have always chased.

Waldinger—a psychiatrist at Harvard—is the current director of one of the longest and most comprehensive studies ever done on adult development. Much of the study has focused on what generates happiness. As of this writing, his TED talk has nearly 26 million views.

The research project is ongoing and has followed the same group of people since 1938 (Some of them are still alive in their 90’s)—and included brain scans, blood work, videotapes of marital conversations, and interviews with their children.

As you might have guessed, the study does not suggest that wealth and status bring happiness. 

Financial security is certainly a basic need for people, but research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics, affirmed what prior studies have demonstrated—after your basic financial needs are met, emotional well-being does not increase with income.

If money and status don’t drive happiness, what does?

After 75 years of research, Harvard summarized their findings in the following statement—

“Happiness comes from choosing to be happy with whatever you do, strengthening your closest relationships, and taking care of yourself physically, financially, and emotionally.”

Waldinger emphasizes that relationships are essential to happiness—”friends, family, and community are vital.”

The data also suggests that loneliness can kill.

Recent Harvard research following the pandemic suggests that 36% of Americans feel “serious loneliness.”

Loneliness has a powerful effect on our physical and mental health. Participants in prior studies who did not have thriving relationships actually died sooner and were at greater risk for dementia.

Healthy relationships were shown to be a greater predictor of long life and a sharp mind than any other medical variable. Healthy marriages showed a particularly powerful effect—knowing that you have “someone you can truly count on.”

Waldinger says, “Life happiness is not a quick fix—it is the hard work of tending to your closest relationships.”

The influence of modern marketing

If you think you are immune to the gravitational pull for wealth and status, consider the following— the US has by far the largest advertising industry in the world and spent $250 billion in 2020. Estimates suggest that this number will increase to $400 billion by 2024. According to marketing research the average person today sees about 5,000 ads per day. If we don’t believe our subconscious is affected by this—it’s like saying we could swim in the ocean without getting wet!

If we don’t stop to clearly define our own values, we will be swept away by the current of the culture.

Digital marketing has taken over by storm. This industry now analyzes our every purchase and click. They know our behavior better than we know ourselves.

And there is usually only one purpose for marketing—to sell something. They make money when we click purchase.

If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to internalize the beliefs and habits we are being bombarded with daily—work more, become successful, make more money, buy more stuff—buy happiness.

When we don’t consciously design our values, we get them by default. We must be highly intentional about practicing our true values and defending against the effects of marketing.

Do your current life choices reflect that you are choosing a life of happiness and meaning?

Turn information into action

The late Billy Graham, who served as the spiritual advisor to every president from Truman to Obama, once said—”Nothing will reveal your real priorities more than your calendar and your bank account.”

Here are 7 recommendations to prioritize happiness with your time and money:

  1. Invest regular time in your closest relationships. Here is the best simple advice I’ve ever gotten—date your spouse, and your kids, at least once a month for the rest of your life. If you don’t have a family, get intentional about regular time with good friends.
  2. Join a community: A sense of community is a powerful source of happiness. Volunteer at church, join a hiking club, host neighbors for dinner—just be deliberate about creating a sense of community that can help you weather the storms of life.
  3. Take time to discover your life purpose. It’s easy to go through life without purpose, but it is well worth the effort to try to find it. Having a clear life purpose helps us to better navigate suffering and can give you an overall direction for your life. Pray, meditate, or talk to a close friend. Explore the topic.
  4. Cultivate financial fitness. Money is a huge source of stress and nearly all the data shows that the majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and not saving nearly enough for retirement. Over time, this deep sense of fear can eat away at your peace of mind, and your health. Take the time necessary to learn to live within your means and have a solid plan for the future.
  5. Be more generous with your time and money. Giving both away is one of the best antidotes to over-accumulation and self-focus.
  6. Take ownership of your physical and emotional health. Create your own self-care plan. Get enough sleep and exercise. Set limits around work hours. Improve your diet. Know what signs to look for when you are running low emotionally and learn to course-correct early.
  7. Develop a regular gratitude practice: Look for important life lessons, growth, and meaning. Create a daily habit that helps you capture these thoughts. Victor Frankl who survived the Holocaust camps is perhaps one of the best examples of finding hope and purpose amidst great suffering. I highly recommend his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
  8. Purchase experiences and memories, not stuff. Being surrounded by clutter and unnecessary purchases causes anxiety and depression. Try buying experiences and memories instead.

Have a great weekend!


Suggested Resources

  1. TED Talk by Robert Waldinger at Harvard 
  2. Victor Frankl—Man’s Search for Meaning



Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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