Getting More Happiness out of your Stuff

When looking into the relationship between money and happiness, as we are this month, there are a number of different approaches to take.

First, we can get a big picture overview. We did that last week when we looked at the overall relationship between money and happiness in our culture and how poverty can drastically decrease our happiness.

We can also look at the science to figure out better ways to spend our money to buy more happiness. We’ll be starting down that path next week.

This week, however, we are looking at how to get more happiness out of the money that we already spend.

On Tuesday we looked into getting the most out of our sporadic smaller purchases. Today we’re going to look into how to change our mindset to get more happiness out of the things we already have.

Back to Science

Last month we explored the science of happiness. We discovered that 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10% by our situation, and 40% by our thoughts and actions.

The happiness caused by our situation is as low as it is because we get used to the things that we experience on a regular basis thanks to hedonic adaptation.

When we are looking for the shortest path to happiness, then, there is one thing that we can do that is in the realm of our thoughts and actions, but also improves our happiness with our situation.

Practicing gratitude.

The Power of Gratitude

We’ve already learned about the happiness-boosting power of gratitude, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but the gist of it is this:

Feeling grateful directly boosts your happiness. It also makes you more optimistic, which in turn makes you happier. On top of that it makes you feel a stronger connection with friends and relatives, which also makes you happier. Studies have even found that grateful people sleep better (and we’ve already learned that more sleep improves our mood).

“Gratitude also decreases negative emotions. More gratitude means less depression, anxiety, loneliness, and envy. It also means fewer headaches, less acne and coughing, and more time exercising.

Fighting the Desire for More

Because of hedonic adaptation, we are wired to instinctively want more, newer, and better stuff. We want the latest gadget, the biggest TV, and the nicest house. This instinct is deeply embedded in our biological underpinnings.

Fighting it requires mindfulness.

Take a step back. Realize how lucky you are to have the things that you have.

You have a vehicle that can take you down the highway at 70 miles per hour and you don’t have to do anything more strenuous than push your foot down while sitting in a comfortable chair.

You have a climate controlled shelter that prior generations would kill for.

Pretty much everything that we own is actually really amazing when you stop and think about it.

Advice from the Stoics

If that doesn’t do it for you, then try the Stoic exercise that we looked at last month.

Take a few minutes every day to think about what your life would be like if you lost something that you currently own.

This doesn’t have to be a deep, meaningful possession. What about your TV? Or your bed? Maybe a couch or dining room table?

Just close your eyes and imagine that someone stole it or it broke and you are now doing without. You’d be fine, of course. You can survive without these items. But it would still be a loss.

Now come back to reality. You still have your stuff! Isn’t that great? Maybe a newer couch would be nice, but your current one sure beats not having one!

The Roots of Social Comparison

Similar to hedonic adaptation is the issue of social comparison. Basically, we want the things that everyone around us has.

We have a deep-seated evolutionary need to fit in. In the days when our brain was developing, not fitting in meant getting kicked out of the tribe and dying alone. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that our brain developed with such a strong instinct to do what everyone else is doing.

This is ultimately where keeping up with the Joneses comes from. It’s not really a conscious decision to buy stuff just because other people have it. It’s an ancient drive to fit in at all costs.

Moving on Up

In the modern world, this ends up being even worse than it sounds, because we tend to be around people that make similar amounts of money.

As our incomes rise and we move into new career fields, or positions at the company, or even neighborhoods, we surround ourselves with new people in higher income brackets.

Our comparison point changes so that no matter how much we make we always feel average at best. There is always somebody just above us on the income ladder.

The Dangers of Social Media

On top of this we now have to deal with social media.

Not only are you seeing what your coworkers are driving and what your neighbors are living in, you’re seeing all the cool vacation photos and home renovation posts of everyone you’ve ever known at any stage of your life.

Social media allows people to share the parts of their lives that they want to share. It allows them to paint their lives in the best light. You see the good parts, but not the bad. You see your friend partying every weekend, but you don’t see him working until midnight every weekday.

When you are jealous of someone’s beautiful house or someone else’s extravagant trips, you don’t see the sacrifices and trade-offs that they made to get that beautiful house or those extravagant trips. Maybe if you knew the whole picture you would prefer the choices you’ve made, the things you have, and the trips you’ve taken.

Gratitude and Mindfulness

The way to defeat social comparison is the same as valuing the things you own: be grateful and be mindful. Step back and think about the big picture. Make your own highlight reel. Appreciate the good things in your life.

Whether through social media or physical interaction, you are always only seeing a small piece of anyone’s life when you see what they own. You can’t compare your happiness or success with anyone else’s based on that information.

Failing that, go out and find your own tribe.

Join the Conversation!

We can get more happiness out of our money without spending an extra dime. We just need to be willing to make a few shifts to our mindset.

What do you think? Have you found gratitude useful in getting more happiness out of your stuff? How have you dealt with social comparison in the social media age? Let us know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Getting More Happiness out of your Stuff”

  1. Until the last line I was about to say, if you found a like minded group of people then fitting in wouldn’t be buying more stuff. Baring that there’s always the question what value does this add to my life. If you can’t name your that value clear enough a five year old can understand, it’s probably not worth the purchase.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…My Privilege, My MomMy Profile

  2. Lately I’ve found that I’ve been trying (or wanting) to keep up with the Joneses in the other direction. By spending less.

    By reading many personal finance blogs, buying a meal out or spending more than $35K a year seems like a sin. This is not good either. We all need to find our own balance.

    To me, it’s all about being intentional with money. I may spend more than you and less than him. That’s ok. We should all be spending our own optimal amount based on where we are in life.

    Comparisons are dangers. I need to remind myself of that sometimes when I read about the guy with an annual cost of living that’s lower than my mortgage payment.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…Warning! You Could Be Confusing Wants and NeedsMy Profile

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