If I ever have trouble sleeping at night, I close my eyes and think of Clash, my dog who had been named after the rock group.
Giving him a home was the best decision my family ever made. He had the proud, handsome face of a Jack Russell with the wobbly behind of a Dachshund. He only ever wanted to pursue a tennis ball. He swallowed the ball, and it cost hundreds of dollars to have it removed. But he was worth every dollar.
Why? Happiness is like a game of pass the parcel — and your spending should be, too. Indeed, research indicates that spending money on others — be they furry friends or human friends — instead of on yourself will help you find lasting happiness.
Consumers tend to be too busy chasing their own tails. On Monday, City
released a premium charge card with a few lavish perks, including an increased sign-up bonus and free nights in expensive hotels. There’s one catch: You have to shell out nearly $8,000 to find all of them. The Federal Reserve announced in April that U.S. families had $1 trillion in credit-card debt. They haven’t had that much debt since 2008. Pets are not cheap either, that said.
1. Happiness is a warm puppy (or fluffy cat)
A pet will charge you $1,270 to own from the first year alone, according to the animal-welfare nonprofit American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but it is money well spent: Pets give you social support that’s vital for physical and psychological well-being, studies found.
A 2011 research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that pet owners had higher self-esteem and got more exercise than non-pet owners, and were less likely to shy away from relationships for fear of being hurt.
In the first part of that study, pet owners had higher self-esteem and more exercise — as well as experienced improved conscientiousness and less fearful attachment, a psychological term that describes the desire to stay away from relationships for fear of being hurt. “The service that pets supplied complemented rather than competed with human resources,” they found. In the end, pet owners “demonstrated the ability of pets to stave off negativity caused by social rejection.”
Don’t miss: 7 reasons Americans are unhappy
Happiness is, indeed, a warm puppy. That could be why some people feed their dogs kale and avocado. And so I’m looking for another dog to adopt. I have been scrolling through PetFinder and Animal Haven for rescued animals like it is Doggy Tinder. Sadly, Howell, a stoic Scottish Terrier, went to his forever home — that is, he had been embraced — an hour before I called the pound. (Oddly, a similar thing kept happening on OKCupid also.)
2. Spending $5 on others enhances happiness
The struggling middle class is giving less to charity. While our instinct is to pile up money in our savings accounts to make sure our future happiness, spare some to help others. Spending money on other people works more magic — or “predicts increased happiness,” to use the academic term — than spending it on oneself.
Participants who were randomly assigned to invest in others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves, researchers at University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School concluded in a 2008 study published in the academic journal Science. But very minor alterations in spending allocations — as little as $5 — may be sufficient to produce non-trivial gains in happiness on a given day,” it found.
MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto
‘I will never regret the time I traveled to a remote island paradise and floated in warm sea water as if I were in a film, or a dream.’
There are lots of ways to do this. Among them: An automated payment every month to your favorite charity. Charitable giving is tax-deductible, but makes you feel fitter and happier also. “A growing body of literature documents that giving to others reduces stress and strengthens the immune system, which leads to better health and longer life expectancy,” Baris Yörük, an associate professor of economics at the University in Albany-SUNY and author of another 2013 research in the Journal of Economic Psychology, concluded.
“Give as though you were taking,” Hisham Matar, the Pultizer Prize-winning author of the memoir “The Return,” said his late father advised him. Russ Johnson, a retired manufacturing executive based in Louisville, Ky., takes that message to heart. He does not give to charity, but he’s a champion tipper. After a conversation with a golfing friend 10 years ago, he decided to stop donating to charities and begin tipping 50% of the bill instead. You can even keep your eyes and ears open for ways to provide every time you walk outside your home.
3. Invest in memories and experiences over stuff
Another golden rule? Spending on possessions may fill your closet and pantry, but spending on intangibles fills your soul. A great live performance is the first thing that I know I spend money on without regret. It makes me happy.
I still have gratitude (the kind they attempt to jimmy from you at Buddhist retreats) that I caught Kathryn Hunter’s frail, broken portrayal of King Lear — 20 years before Glenda Jackson’s recent West End performance in the identical role — in London’s Leicester Haymarket theatre in 1997.
Add to this Siân Phillips playing with Marlene Dietrich in London’s Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue that same year, or Annie Baker’s “Circle, Mirror, Transformation” at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 about a group of adults in an acting class. And Liza Minnelli singing “New York, New York” in the Palace in 2008. She was in fine fettle. It was worth every penny and I still consider it to this day. (One important downside: I had to pursue a good deal of turkeys to find those performances.)
There’s a scientific (as well as an artistic) explanation for this kind of cultural enrichment that lasts decades, perhaps even a lifetime. Ryan Howell (no relation the aforementioned Howell), an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, has spent a huge portion of his career studying happiness and buys, and writes a blog on the topic for Psychology Today.
His own studies, and lots of others, have shown that spending money on experiences rather than stuff can lead to a more lasting joy. Revisiting the characters in my favorite series of novels, the Mapp and Lucia show by E.F. Benson, makes me happy. I get to travel back to Britain between the wars. It’s tough to grow tired of these gorgeous memories.
4. If you can afford it, then visit faraway places
Pets, people, plays and — eventually — spend your money on airplanes, or rather the places they could take you. When I’m on my deathbed, I won’t ever regret the time I traveled to a remote island paradise and floated in warm sea water as if I were in a film, or a dream. I put in a tent in Kruger National Park in South Africa in the dead of night listening to the orchestra of noises from the wild.
Peering into the remains of The Sarajevo Tunnel that was used to transport food to the residents during the siege during the Bosnian War reminds me never to take a civilized society free of war for granted. Take a look at this guy who quit his job and spent a year traveling the world. He produced a five-minute video of his trip.
Prolonged happiness can be gleaned from “experiential purchases” or “abstract experiences,” according to some recent book — “Consumption and Well-Being from the Material World” — by Miriam Tatzel, professor in the Empire State College in Nanuet, N.Y. Published in 2014, it examines decades of study on materialism and says bucks spent on intangible experiences such as travel leads to more pleasure than splurging on tangible products like jewelry, clothes, furniture as well as the most sought-after electronic gadgets.
5. Go crazy! Don’t listen to do-gooders like me
If you actually need a Cinemascope-style LED television screen and Louis Vuitton shoes, do not let me stop you. Certain individuals have more difficulty being joyful. An hour a week on a psychologist’s couch might not hurt in that case and could fit into Tatzel’s point on adventures.
“People who had higher materialistic values were more likely to buy experiential things for extrinsic reasons, such as showing off or impressing others,” Howell and his colleagues concluded from a 2013 lab study of 100 people. “This suggests that materialistic individuals may not feel happiness from experiences.”
Some folks go to extraordinary lengths to buy things that will probably be sent off to a charity shop in a month. Sol Mac Eoghan, a father of two boys living in Dublin, flew to Spain last Christmas to buy his son a Hatchimal. His son Charlie, then aged 4, had his heart set on one. As a result of flight times, he needed to remain in Spain three days. Nice work, if you can get it. Mac Eoghan, however, did not get the sun he had been after. “Cars were being washed down the street. I had been three full days there and it hammered down rain.”
His wife, Andrea Rochford, thinks Mac Eoghan might have been underestimating the dreariness of the rain. “Happy?” she says. “He was thrilled. It was a little winter break.”
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