Retirement

Harvard Study Shows Us How To Invest In Happiness

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I prefer rich,” my friend Jim Stovall told me. It’s just one of many things I learned from Jim.

We co-authored a book many years ago—my first, his…who knows how many! But like millions of other readers, I was drawn to Jim’s work because of his best-selling book, The Ultimate Gift, which found a way to articulate the nuance of both the blessings and trappings of wealth through a powerful narrative.

But please don’t get the wrong idea; Jim’s is not a message promoting the pursuit of money for money’s sake. Here are a few other gems to round out his message:

  • “Being rich is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot to live for.”
  • “True wealth is not measured in dollars and cents, but in the relationships we have and the experiences we’ve shared.”
  • “It’s not about how much you have, but how much you enjoy what you have.”

So, money can’t buy happiness—at least beyond daily necessities—but it sure can help. One of the world’s foremost experts on the intersection of money, life, and happiness is Arthur Brooks, a career-changing classical musician turned social scientist who now teaches the most popular course at Harvard Business School—on happiness.

I got the chance to see him lecture recently, and he closed with a summary of the findings of the most definitive, longest-running study on happiness dubbed the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Brooks summarized this expansive study with seven recommendations, to which I’ll add my observations on how we can directly (and indirectly) invest in our own happiness:

1. Quit smoking. I didn’t have the guts to ask him if the occasional cigar counts, but regardless, I think the health implications of cigarette smoking are no longer questioned. But the financial implications are also pretty meaningful. I’ll spare you a hyperbolic net-present-value calculation on the lifetime cost of smoking, but in addition to the possible increased healthcare costs of the probable increase in health complications, the average cost of a pack of smokes today is hovering around $8.00, and you’ll pay at least twice as much for life insurance and any other financial product that requires health underwriting.

2. Limit problem drinking. He qualified this by saying that if you question whether or not your drinking is a problem, it probably is. He added that “all intoxicants lead to less happiness and relational challenges,” despite the narrower studies we cling to that suggest there might be health benefits to drinking in moderation. And if you’re curious what the financial impact of drinking is—or not drinking—try giving up booze for a quarter of the year—heck, even a month—and see how much less you spend when you’re not picking up the tab. Lessening or eliminating alcohol will also help significantly with the next two recommendations.

3. Maintain healthy body weight. Blood pressure, heart disease, type-two diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammatory and carcinogenic foods—this one can save not only your money but your life. I’m deep into the rabbit hole of the mostly plant-based, nutrient-dense, whole-food research, and all I can tell you is that you shouldn’t read How Not To Die and Eat To Live unless you’re ready to look and feel better and get plenty of quizzical looks from your friends and family when you pass up the bacon cheeseburger. And in addition to looking and feeling great, you’ll also save money—because even though you’ll likely be shopping more at hoity-toity grocery stores, most animal protein costs a lot more than plant protein. BUT, Brooks reminds us, if we become obsessive about the maintenance of a healthy body weight, we can quickly turn this happiness booster into a buster, both personally and relationally.

4. Exercise daily. With implementation of the first three directives, you’re actually saving money so far, until we get to #4. Now, Brooks reminds us that daily exercise doesn’t have to be expensive or take much time—a brisk walk counts, eliminating the reflexive rebuttal on the seven-days-a-week habit. Yet I’ll add that I think most people underspend on their exercise habit—and I’ve never known anyone to complain about the money spent on a personal trainer. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it, and it will also help you stay inspired to adhere to the first three recommendations.

5. Adopt a coping style. We all deal with crap in life, so we need a way to cope with the crap because avoidance isn’t an option. Brooks recommends “metacognition, not rumination,” and suggests that the simple act of journaling helps us deal with negative emotion, bringing it from the limbic area of our brain to the pre-frontal cortex. After the lecture, I did have the guts to ask him if this is roughly synonymous with the groundbreaking work of Kahneman and Tvorsky, the forefathers of behavioral economics, regarding System 1 and System 2, something I’ve written about pretty extensively. He said, definitively, yes. And if you don’t consider yourself a journaler and prefer a practice that feels more practical and productive, consider 5 Reasons Why Non-Digital Time Management Is More Productive.

6. Practice continuous education. Mark Twain famously quipped, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read,” and indeed, Brooks’ recommendation on this front involved only three words: “Read, read, read.” But maybe you don’t consider yourself a reader? I didn’t until after college when I felt like I could finally read what I chose; now, I can’t imagine life without the practice. Yet I probably listen to about a third of my reading list, thanks to the $14.95 monthly investment in Audible.

7. Foster love. The first six of Brooks’ observations are all in service of the seventh. He qualified the specific types of loving relationships that contribute the most to our happiness as “a stable, long-term romantic partnership or very close friends.” Note here that he’s not saying the number of our friendships or relationships are the contributor to our happiness—but the depth and intimacy of those connections. And is there a better way to spend our money than facilitating those relationships that are the most meaningful to us? Doing so can be expensive, but broken relationships can cost us everything.

Brooks concluded that “Happiness = Love.” He specified, “Love of deity [to provide us with a worldview and ready coping mechanism], love of family, love of friends, and expressing our love to others through meaningful work.” And I’m inclined to suggest that it is through loving ourselves—caring for our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing—that optimally prepares us to best express our love to others.

Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons, said through song, “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” And what better place to invest our money?

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