True happiness, said comedian Bob Monkhouse, is when you marry a person for love and later discover that they have money. We all appreciate the joke, of course, because though one side of us knows that a loving relationship provides a good chance of happiness the other thinks it would be guaranteed if that relationship made us rich as well. Imagine it: true love plus lots of money! What more could you ask for! Happiness guaranteed. It's like my dad would say to me when I was in college (tongue in cheek, I'm sure): "Remember, Greg, money isn't everything. But if you happen to marry someone with money, it won't hurt. " And yet we all know - and study after study confirms it - money doesn't buy lasting happiness. In fact, as it turns out, nothing produces lasting happiness in a one shot deal. A sense of wellbeing, the ability to thrive with joy in life, is more complicated than that. Behavioral economists and economic psychologists coined the contributing problem the "hedonic treadmill" - our expectations rise with our incomes, material possessions, or other positive experiences so that the happiness we seek remains just out of reach. It's like we're caught on a treadmill, working hard, and getting nowhere. We have to keep working just to stay in the same place.
James Montier (global equity strategist for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and author of the report entitled It Doesn’t Pay: Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness) described it this way: "In other words, we quickly get used to new things and they become part of our norm. We might get a new fast car and at first be out washing it every weekend but six months later we have become accustomed to it, the kids have scuffed up the seats in the back and the boot is full of dog hairs. This is hedonic adaptation at work . . . material possessions are likely to be assimilated relatively fast.” And like you and I have experienced, we're off to find the next new happiness-inducing experience. The treadmill keeps going.
So can you do anything about this cycle? Some experts say, "It's simple. Just reduce your expectations so you don't experience the discrepancy between expectation and experience." The theory is, if you have low expectations, you won't get disappointed. Just be Zen about it all and live in the now. Buddha's point was: since desire is the root of all suffering, the solution is to simply get rid of desire. Live without want and you'll never want of anything.
Certainly learning the art of managing our desires is important. But it might not solve the whole problem. Happiness, or a sense of thriving and being fulfilled, wellbeing, is impacted by both our expectations and experiences. So rather than denying that reality, perhaps there is a way to shape them in ways that actually pay off.
A recent study reported in the Journal of Economic Psychology (2008) suggested two powerful ways that increase a person's wellbeing and happiness. First, the principle authors acknowledged how many studies have shown that few events in life have a lasting impact on subjective well-being because of people’s tendency to adapt quickly; worse, those events that do have a lasting impact tend to be negative. And second, their research showed "that while major events may not provide lasting increases in well-being, certain seemingly minor events – such as attending religious services or exercising – may do so by providing small but frequent boosts: if people engage in such behaviors with sufficient frequency, they may cumulatively experience enough boosts to attain higher well-being."
In this study they surveyed participants before they attended religious services or exercised and others as they left these activities. Study 1 showed that people reported higher well-being after religious services, and Study 2 showed a similar effect for attending the gym or a yoga class. Equally important, frequency of engaging in these activities was a positive predictor of people’s baseline wellbeing, suggesting that these small boosts have a cumulative positive effect on well-being.
Imagine that. You can boost your experience of wellbeing by going frequently to church (at least once a week) and to the gym or yoga class (at least several times a week). The positive effect from frequency is cumulative - it increases your wellbeing more and more, as opposed to dropping off dramatically like after a major event or purchase is over.
"The key for long lasting changes to wellbeing is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."
It's interesting that oftentimes people will become involved in spiritual community on a "I'll go when I really feel like it" basis. But if they're particularly tired one week, the motivation isn't there to get up and go, or it doesn't seem like it really matters much in the long run if they miss for awhile. And yet, in the physical exercise and trying-to-get-in-shape arena, we all acknowledge the reality that you have to be regular and stay regular to reap the real cumulative benefits. Which means going even when you might not feel like going. And going regularly.
This happiness research is pretty significant - if you want your wellbeing to be boosted, you have to be frequent and regular. Even engaging in what some might consider to be "small" activities (like church or exercise), when engaged in often, raise your wellbeing and experience of thriving.
This study certainly corresponds to numerous research done in the last 10 years about the positive overall health impact of spiritual community and regular attendance. UC Berkeley's School of Public Health reported on a major study several years ago about the connection between faith and health.
Using data collected over a period of 31 years and involving 6,545 adults in Alameda County, non-churchgoers were found to have a 21 percent greater overall risk of dying sooner compared to those who attend religious services at least once a week. Even after controlling for potentially confounding variables (like gender, current health, income, education, etc.), additional trends were noted, including a 66 percent greater risk of dying from respiratory diseases and a 99 percent greater risk with digestive diseases among those not attending religious services. Regular involvement in supportive and meaningful spiritual community was linked with lower blood pressure, fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease, less depression, and a decrease in earlier death from all causes.
Study coauthor William Strawbridge of the Public Health Institute attributes the health benefits highlighted in the study to the networks within religious congregations. "The church attendance aspect involves the interaction between people," he said. "Basically it's these relationships that are good for health," coupled with the accompanying attention to life issues and spiritual growth and development in the context of supportive community.
So, want to give a boost to your wellbeing? It apparently won't be coming from that "retail therapy" we often feel tempted by. It won't even be come from winning the lottery we all dream of. But apparently it will involve not hitting the snooze button this weekend and instead making your way to a spiritual community of people who will support you on your journey. And then hitting the gym afterward will be the icing on the cake! :) Go figure!
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