Ever since my first allowance was doled out, I've had a complicated relationship with money. I’m pretty grounded, but the impulse to spend frivolously often wins out. Mostly I grab last- minute items at the check-out, splurge on over-the-top outfits, or buy extravagant gifts for family and friends. None of these purchases led to financial ruin, but they do come with a high price tag of letdown and regret.
Shouldn’t I have saved the cash? I ask myself, especially with a college-aged son in the picture. Or given the money to a worthy charity? Or bought something more practical our family could really use? When I run this dilemma by my friends -- some more flush than others -- they agree money is a tricky business and spend though we do, it doesn't buy happiness.
Yet according to the latest research, that may not be true. New studies show money not only has a powerful effect on our brains -- but it really can make us happy. Heres the key: Its not how much we have (there is only a small correlation between wealth and happiness, accounting for about 1% of the happiness reported in surveys) but how we spend it. For example, studies show the excitement over a shiny new car, the latest gadget, or a new piece of clothing, is short-lived. Taking a trip would provide longer lasting satisfaction, suggests Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness.
So, what does offer us happiness? Here are some proven tips:
Arrange a regular lunch or dinner out with friends. A large survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center finds that those with five or more close friends are 50 percent more likely to describe themselves as happy.
Go on a great vacation. Experiences blossom rather than diminish as you recall them, says Barry Schwartz, Ph.D. Next time you think that arranging a vacation isn’t worth the trouble or cost -- factor in the delayed happiness quotient.
Invest in lessons that challenge you. Try piano, golf, tennis, or dance. Were far happier when were working toward a goal then when we reach one, says Harvard psychology professor Carol Kauffman.
Consider getting a dog or cat. Studies show pets raise endorphin levels, and pet owners report being happier than those without a four-legged companion.
Spend money on a journal you love. Keeping a gratitude list, writing down affirmations, exploring your thoughts, all reduce stress and help focus you focus what matters.
Buy memorabilia. Souvenirs or anything that reminds you of your youth -- a T-shirt with a picture of your favorite band, for example -- are powerful mood boosters.
Get a backyard grill or invest in a fireplace. Creating a space where friends, relatives and neighbors can relax will give you endless pleasure.
Choose time over money. Studies show cutting back the hours you work will leave you happier, even if it means less pay.
Splurge on fresh flowers. A Rutgers University study linked being around flowers to greater happiness and over-all life satisfaction.
Robin Westen is Third Ages medical reporter.