12/22/2011 08:36 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Chasing Happiness: You're Doing It Wrong

How do you find happiness? A first step in tackling this question is to understand what happiness means. But herein lies the problem. Our understanding of what happiness is (and how to get it) is often misaligned with what really drives happiness.

Money, a successful career, a house with a white picket fence in the best neighborhood in town: these are things we consider the hallmarks of happiness. They are also the things we think will allow us to achieve happiness if only we could just acquire them. Studies show, however, that beyond a certain threshold, how much you make is relatively unrelated to your level of happiness. Take the striking evidence that although income has steadily increased over roughly the past 50 years in the U.S., happiness has remained virtually flat. (A similar pattern is seen in data from other countries.)

Indeed, research by Dan Gilbert and others shows that we tend to go looking for happiness in a lot of the wrong places. Becoming a multimillionaire and having all the picket fences, fur sinks and electric dog polishers (thanks, Steve Martin) that money can buy isn't going to bring you the contentment you think it will. If you do become as materially wealthy as you dream, you will have to confront the reality that those feelings of happiness you've been chasing aren't any closer as a result of what's going on in your bank account.

So we learn yet again that money can't buy happiness. Why is happiness so elusive? One reason is that the definition of happiness changes every three to five years throughout one's life. The meaning of happiness is not idiosyncratic, individualistic or random -- nor is it singular and stable. Happiness has a clear pattern, indicating that people are pursuing different things across their lifespans. For example, research suggests that for some age groups, money is linked to happiness. However, after time, other factors such as meaningfulness, balance and family start to outshine it in importance. No matter what age you are now, or what your current priority, it's fairly certain that you will at some point be looking for meaningfulness.

And having an impact on others. The results of a recent study showed that spending money on others has a positive impact on happiness -- much more so than spending money on oneself.[1] This was striking given that the participants thought personal spending would make them happier than spending on someone else. Eudemonia, or fundamental happiness, is the result of an active life governed by intrinsic meaning, self-sacrifice, and self-improvement. Although it all sounds a little sanctimonious (and conjures images of Gandhi and Mother Teresa), the rewards of bettering the welfare of others have been illustrated by research too many times to simply ignore.

In addition, donating your time instead of your money will also cause you to feel more connected to the organization you're helping out. This in turn will boost otherwise elusive feelings of contentment and balance that so many of us seek. In other words, if you're looking to get happy, stop staying late at work just because you think you see something shiny at the top of the ladder: Go out and donate your time to an organization that matters to you.

The takeaway from all of this research on money and happiness can be summarized in two short sentences: There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. Taking actions with the purpose of achieving happiness will never bear fruit unless the actions in and of themselves bring you happiness. It's an idea that goes all the way back to Aristotle but is, for some reason, harder for us to comprehend than the idea that drinking a Coke could make us happier. If you are looking for happiness, start by figuring out how you can find meaning. It may sound counterintuitive, but if you try it, you may find the happiness you've been chasing lets you actually catch it in a way you'd never expect.


[1] Dunn, E.W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. (2011). If money doesn't make you happy then you probably aren't spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology.