Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Six tips for happiness

Edited by Jill Wright,

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times has some valuable insights on happiness.

The first is that taking the risk of chatting to strangers on public transport can bring unexpected joy.

A 2004 study reported that commuting is associated with fewer positive emotions than any other activity, and most people believe that their fellow commuters wouldn't want to talk to them.

In fact, not a single person who agreed to try to talk to the stranger who sat beside them on the train in an experiment by Chicago psychologists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder was snubbed, and the ensuing conversations were consistently pleasant.

This isn't new to me. It's something my husband does all the time, almost certainly because as a child growing up in the country, he didn't get those warnings about not making eye contact etc.

As a result, he has a lot of warm, funny, fascinating conversations on trams and trains and buses with people he'd otherwise never meet or share time with.

The New York Times piece gives the details of some fascinating experiments which revealed that whether they are introverts or extroverts, people feel happier on days when they have a lot of social interactions.

The other insight that emerges from the story: we're often systematically wrong about what makes us happy.

A Chicago Tribune story from three years ago on Epley's and Schroeder's work reveals that it followed a decision to introduce "quiet" cars to the Chicago transit system after
84 percent of people who responded to an operator survey said they were in favor of facilities that would allow them to sit alone and enjoy their solitude.

In fact, the researchers discovered that commuters asked to interact with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. Commuters asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute.

The New York Times piece came from psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) and marketing professor Michael Norton (Harvard Business School), who have recently published a book called Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, which suggests that money actually can buy happiness, if it's spent on the right things.

Among their tips for happy spending:

Don't buy "stuff". Buy experience ... it's more fun to look forward to and gives you a lot of great memories to look back on.

Make spending a treat ... give up the things you like to spend on for a while. After a break, you'll be even happier when you get back to them.

Buy time ... a house in the suburbs is a big mistake if it means you will have to commute two hours a day.

Pay now, consume later ... If you're going on a vacation, buying a package ahead of time will make it feel like you're getting it all for nothing, rather than forking out for everything as you go.

Invest in others .. people who spend money on other people are a lot happier about the investment than those who spend it on themselves.

The last one, I suspect, is not an absolute for always truth.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.