Contrary to the old saying, money can buy happiness—if you spend it on other people, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton reported recently at the TED conference. In fact, even buying a $5 gift for a friend—or a total stranger—can significantly boost joy, one of his studies shows. And in nearly every country, people who donate to charity are more blissful than those who only spend on themselves, surveys show.
In the study, the researchers approached strangers on the street and either gave them $5 or $20 to spend by the end of the day. Those who used the windfall to benefit others, by buying toys for siblings, treating friends to coffee, or giving it to the homeless, felt far greater happiness than those who were told to spend it on themselves. Yet most study participants predicted the opposite: that they’d gain more pleasure by buying themselves a little treat.
Here’s a look at other intriguing findings about how to find our bliss.
Rejoice if things are going well for your friends and neighbors: Research shows that people become 25 percent happier with their lives if a pal who lives within a mile of their home has a significant uptick in joy.
Oddly enough, studies suggest that if your spouse becomes happier, your own joy only rises eight percent, while a more blissful next-door neighbor would lift your level of delight by a whopping 34 percent. Alas, this effect doesn’t extend to the workplace, reports Nick Powdthavee, author of the Happiness Equation.
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Next time you’re brooding about work hassles or a frustrating situation, try drawing a smiling face or funny cartoon. Creating cheerful pictures reduces stress and boosts happiness, a 2008 study found. After watching a gloomy film, one group of participants sketched their current mood (venting), another drew a cheerful picture, and a control group was given a different task (distraction). The group that drew upbeat art showed the greatest rise in mood, leading the researchers to theorize that positive fantasies and drawings are a form of emotional repair.
Apparently friendship isn’t priceless, since British researchers have calculated the monetary value of a sociable life, compared to a lonely one. In the study, a pay hike of $1,600 only accounted for a 0.0007 point uptick on a seven-point self-reported happiness scale. Spending more time with friends, however, lifted joy by 0.161 points. “What this implies is that swapping a sociable life for an isolated one requires a pay rise of approximately 0.161/0.0007,” about $374,000, says Powdthavee. “That’s a little more than a new, gleaming Ferrari 612 Scaglietti,”
Being cheerful may help cut heart disease and stroke by 50 percent, according to a Harvard School of Public Health review of more than 200 studies, published last month in Psychological Bulletin. And while you may think that happy people are just healthier, the researchers found that the link between an upbeat outlook and reduced cardiovascular risk held true even when age, weight, smoking, and other risk factors were taken into account.
Another study found that laughter has powerfully beneficial effects on blood vessels, compared to exercise or statins.
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Reaching out and helping others can lift their spirits—and yours. In a Stanford study, students were divided into three groups. One group was asked to perform five random acts of kindness a week during the six-week study, the second group to perform the five acts in a single day, and the third control group didn’t get any instructions on kindness. While people who did good deeds felt happier at the end of the experiment, those who did the kind acts in one day felt the happiest of all. And that’s a wonderful reason to make helping others part of your daily (or at least once a week) activities.
Studies show that when people are asked to do the same thing over and over, even if they enjoy the activity at first, it eventually becomes a buzzkill. Conversely, a varied routine boosts bliss by making life more fun and spontaneous. Look for little ways to mix it up every day, waking up early and walking in the morning sun, surprising a friend with flowers, talking to new people, taking an unfamiliar route to work, or trying an exotic food.
The upside of getting older is that you’re likely to get happier. A Gallup poll of more than 520,000 Americans reports that those over the age of 60 enjoy better emotional health than do younger folk. In fact, people in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, on average, report a higher level of positive emotions and experiences—such as laughing, smiling, doing something interesting, and overall enjoyment—than do those in their 30s. One reason may be that as we age, get better at focusing on activities and experiences that give us pleasure and appreciating what’s satisfying about our lives.
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