Can't buy me love
Everybody tells me so
Can't buy me love
No no no no no
I've talked before about a piece of information that is starting to become fairly well known - past a minimum level that varies from culture to culture but is related to the amount needed to obtain the necessities of life, the amount of money we have doesn't increase our level of happiness one iota. The CEO is no happier than the guy on the assembly line. The stock broker is no happier than the family farmer.
National Public Radio spoke today about a piece of research published in Science that tells how money can buy happiness.
How's that, you ask? Spend it on someone else.
Come into a windfall lately? Decide it's time to get that Sportster you've been eyeing? Forget it. Buy the Sportster for your best friend.
Have a couple of bucks you've taken to work for a latte at your favorite coffee bistro? Give it to the panhandler on the corner.
Got a Christmas bonus? Buy someone else a gift.
In Happiness, Emotion, and Fulfillment - Part III I talked about happiness being a side effect that naturally occurs rather than being a primary goal to strive for. As soon as you start trying to be happy, you'll fail. And not to put too fine a point on it, you'll fail miserably.
There aren't a whole lot of ways to spend money when you break it down. You can spend money on things - the house, the car, the electronics, books, stuff that is relatively permanent. Or you can spend money on experiences - going to a movie or ball game, giving a gift, donating to a charity, going out to a fancy restaurant, ways that are relatively ephemeral and that give you nothing to show for it.
The thing is, when you spend money on the permanent things you're normally spending it on what you want, on what you think will make you happy. You are pursuing happiness as a goal.
Spend money on someone else, and you are no longer pursuing your happiness, you are pursuing some else's happiness. You are spending money on the experience of seeing the effect of the gift on that person. Your happiness becomes a side effect of your action.
Much as we may fantasize about spending our lives on an island alone, or never speaking to another person, we are not solitary beings. We are social entities who only function well in relation to other beings. Even that little old lady living in the house on the corner alone has her cats and her radio.
Our pursuit of happiness will only succeed when we abandon it. This is the root of what is known in India as karma yoga - dedication of the results of our work to god. In karma yoga, we focus on process, not results. In so doing, we are more easily able to enter what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called flow, the state in which we are immersed in our work and which naturally leads to a state of happiness.
So, do you have a couple of bucks? Buy that little old lady some food for her cats instead of the newest edition of Guitar Hero. You'll all be happier.