12/17/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Happiness: The Holiday Edition

Liudmila Sundikova via Getty Images

It is again the time of the year when well-wishes for "happiness and prosperity" are splattered all over the place. With dedicated intent, or none at all, millions of these greetings are being sent. On the receiving end, we may not even recognize the complexity of the matter: happiness, already, is a tricky subject, let alone happiness and prosperity. For starters, instinct and popular wisdom tell us that money cannot buy happiness, and that happy people do not necessarily need money (or a lot of it) to optimize their state of content; although this is a somewhat logical conclusion, the whole topic is a bit more complicated.

The United Nations (U.N.) has made it an annual objective to publish the World Happiness Report, inclusive of a complex empirical ranking of hundreds of nations, representing 99 percent of the world's population. Even though the founding fathers of our country declared for Americans to pursue "life, liberty... and happiness," the U.S. nearly missed the top 20 of the 2013 U.N. happiness findings. It appears, however, that happiness is not only a function of a given socioeconomic framework, but is also deeply rooted in our DNA. Research has concluded that the length of a single gene determines our level of happiness, which in its most pure and un-mutated form produces higher levels of serotonin, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter responsible for balancing moods. With this genetic aspect in mind, Danes and their native Denmark should technically be happiest, which coincidently or not is also reflective of findings in the U.N report. The U.S., U.K., and France, to the contrary, are more miserable nations.

Another twist can be found in the commonly accepted logic that "money doesn't buy happiness," since, apparently, it can (to a degree). A study of spending patterns has shown that, although purchase of material possessions provides a short-term boost in happiness, the so-called "buy high" is not sustainable. For a happier life, the focus should be on acquiring experiences, as they will form memories and outlast satisfaction from material possessions in the long run. The logical fallacy, however, is that we more often assign value to things that are "real," rather than experienced -- or do you recall a scenario of "keeping up with the Joneses" based on an immaterial showdown? Think of many parents who work in an endless effort, including hours of traveling to and from the workplace, with the common argument of creating a better life for their children. While their intentions are good, the reality may be less so; not only is family time fundamentally beneficial, but long commutes have a detrimental effect on life satisfaction and general health.

My findings may seem rather trivial and not entirely practical, for various reasons, as it is clearly one's very personal interpretation that influences our individual state of happiness. However, the most important lesson to take away when dwelling on this topic is that our perceived factors of happiness have changed over time. As such, most of today's society is focused on the maximization of output and respective consumption. We have replaced true happiness related to accomplishment and shared experiences with rather questionable metrics of "consumptive joy." To be clear, I am not implying that money and consumption are entirely bad things, but that it is more important how we define prosperity; skip an unnecessary purchase, be critical of what is really needed, and instead "ramp-up" your dream vacation budget. While saving for the big trip, make it a custom to share a home-cooked meal with friends or family, take a day off, and, overall, allow for subtle changes to a busy existence.