I was having a conversation with a friend recently about happiness. Our conversation began with her asking me if I thought that buying a new house would make her happier (she asked this question only half facetiously). My initial reaction was that a house can't bring happiness. In fact, a robust finding of the growing body of research on happiness is that money and material things don't increase happiness once basic needs are met (and her current house exceeds that minimal threshold). Further, contrary to popular perception, some of the best predictors of happiness have nothing to do with "stuff" (as George Carlin riffed so insightfully and humorously in his now-famous rant). The quality of your relationships, a satisfying career, having a passion for something, pursuing meaningful goals and having a positive attitude bring people the most happiness.
But then I got to thinking about the meaning of a house (and other stuff) beyond its shelter and comforts. I decided that a house could potentially make my friend happier, but only if two criteria are met. One, is the house in which she currently lives (e.g., the physical structure, neighborhood, or location) inconsistent with what she values or the lifestyle that she wants to lead? For example, if you live in a suburban development, but love the city, open space or 1920's home architecture, then your house might interfere with your happiness. Two, would a new house be more consistent with what she values and enhance the quality of her life experience? For instance, does its design give you aesthetic pleasure or does its location give you easy access to activities that you enjoy?
In other words, happiness doesn't come from our stuff, but the values that underlie our stuff and how it impacts the quality of our lives. For example, I have several very nice bikes and they make me happy. But they don't make me happy because I own the bikes or they are expensive or they look very cool (if you're into bikes), but rather because they are consistent with my values of exercise and the outdoors, and they enhance the quality of my biking experience.
Will things outside of ourselves make a sea change to our happiness? I'm not sure. But I do believe that the more we align our outer worlds (e.g., home, neighborhood, marriage, friends, work, avocations -- each of us has our own list) with our inner worlds (what gives us meaning, satisfaction and joy), the more likely happiness will result. So, finding happiness is about creating that congruence between our inner and outer worlds, our values and the lives we live.
A danger in looking for the stuff that will be consistent with what we value is that if it continues to escape us, we may continue looking for and getting more stuff that we think will provide that fit. In fact, that's a real problem in our aspirational culture where so many are looking for the B.B.D. (bigger, better deal) in the futile belief that they will, sooner or later, after much consumption, find that thing that will bring them true happiness. Of course, in all likelihood, they won't because they're looking in the wrong places.
Now here's an interesting question: If people align their lives with "bad" values (I realize I'm making a judgment here), for example, celebrity, physical appearance and conspicuous consumption, in other words, just about everything that is valued in our popular culture, will they find happiness according to my theory? As I noted above, according to the research, the answer to that question is no. But if you really believe that a fancy car, a role on a reality TV show, or augmented breasts will make you happy, well then, wouldn't it? I'm not thoroughly convinced one way or the other, but I guess I'll conclude to the contrary. I believe that there is something intrinsically meaningful in things that really do bring happiness and that intrinsic value is simply missing from those superficial things.
My friend offered what might be a better alternative than trying to change our lives to better fit our values. She suggested that, rather than changing our outer world, we should alter our inner world. In other words, we should change our values or our attitude toward what we have so we can more comfortably accept the life we have instead of pining for the life we wish for. For example, we could focus on the joys that our present life provide or simply be grateful for what we have. Or we could look other places that might more directly influence our happiness, such as our relationships, work or even within ourselves. This approach has the benefit of saving us a lot of time and money because we wouldn't be looking for and buying that next thing that we absolutely know will bring us happiness. A downside to this strategy is that it may be harder to change our minds than to change our stuff; years of therapy or yoga or "Eat, Pray, Love" global searching may be even more time consuming and expensive.
I suppose when all is said and done (and, by the way, more is almost always said than done), the best way to find that happiness that eludes so many of us is to strike a balance between changing our inner and outer worlds, in which we make small changes to both. In this process, we can more easily create that sought after alignment between our values and our lives by bringing our two worlds closer together without requiring a 7.3 on the Richter scale "lifequake." The result of which is, happily enough, happiness.