Most therapists’ first question to their patient: “What do you want to accomplish in therapy?”
Most patients’ first answer: “I just want to be happy.”
Direct, succinct and clear, this answer cuts to the chase. It makes perfect sense, and we therapists fully concur. We want you to be happy too.
But this understandable request raises a far more complex question with which the greatest minds of all time have grappled:
What makes people happy?
Here are the short versions of a few of these great thinkers’ answers **:
Aristotle: Happiness depends on ourselves.
Buddha: Happiness results from mindful thought and action (dharma).
Socrates: Happiness comes from gaining rational control over your desires, and harmonizing the different parts of your soul.
Epicurus: To gain happiness, abstain from unnecessary desires to achieve an inner tranquility; be content with simple things.
Fast forward to today’s material world. We all know that the above suggestions are probably right, yet we over-focus on one particular “key” to happiness: money. The idea that more money means more happiness is fed by our society’s values, perhaps partially because money is tangible and measurable. We can’t seem to help feeling that if only we had more money, all would be well.
At the University of Manchester and Warwick in the UK, researchers Boyce & Wood (2009) were curious about this. They wanted to know which has the bigger effect on happiness: working on yourself in therapy, or having more money?
They studied thousands of people who had started therapy, and compared their changes in happiness levels with other people who had received pay increases. Their findings were nothing short of astounding.
They found that the amount of happiness that people gained from $1,300 spent on psychotherapy required a $42,000 pay raise to achieve via money.
As a therapist, this finding doesn’t surprise me much. Imagine having improved relationships with your spouse and work colleagues; happier, healthier children; lowered anxiety, less anger and conflict in your life; or more motivation and passion. Any one of these highly achievable therapy outcomes would bring far more lasting happiness to most people than the brief “high” from a new car, or even a bigger house.
The 3 Most Efficient Ways to Maximize Your Happiness
- Face your issues. Avoiding your conflicts and inner struggles merely allows them to continue and to grow. Few issues go away on their own. Facing your weaknesses and struggles fuels your strength, no matter how painful they are. Don’t run away, and don’t bury your head in the sand. Stand up and take it on, and you will be far better off in the long run.
- Maximize the quality of your relationships. Think about your spouse, your children, your supervisor, your colleagues, neighbors and friends. Looking at your relationships is somewhat like looking into an emotional mirror. Your relationships offer a reflection of who you are. Nurture and strengthen them, and you nurture and strengthen yourself. The happier your relationships, the happier you will be.
- Learn and practice mindfulness. Pull yourself back from living for the future, and stop yourself from dwelling on the past. Both are important to consider, learn from and plan for. But the most important place to live is in the moment, now. Be aware of what you’re doing and how and why you’re doing it. Be aware of what you’re feeling, and how and why you’re feeling it. The more mindful you are, the happier you will be.
Sure money is nice. It’s good to have enough that you won’t be plagued by financial stress. But don’t fall prey to society’s false messages.
After all, money is not an efficient or effective route to happiness.