For decades we have known about the link between happiness and health, although perhaps not the details. The archetypal study on the topic began in 1938 at Harvard University when scientists began to track the lives of some of its second-year students. As they graduated and began their careers, the research group was asked to regularly complete a longitudinal survey requesting updates on both happiness and health (among other requests).
84 years later, the work continues, having expanded beyond the initial all-male cohort (given there were no female students at the outset) to the original group’s children and a group of Boston (Massachusetts) residents. Now one of the longest-running studies of adult life globally, the findings run to copious amounts of data flagging correlations across all genders between physical and mental health and happiness.
Further (separate) research has also mapped out the strong ties between happiness, health and wealth. One such study is a widely-referenced 2010 paper by Princeton University, which pointed to a tipping point at the time of US$75,000 for annual income beyond which happiness didn’t increase even if cashflow did.
But while these findings provide evidence for a strong relationship, it doesn’t really set out what is ‘enough‘, since for some people, and for a variety of reasons, that income level isn’t sufficient. Often attributed to Bo Derek, the American actress and model, the quote “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop” highlights that the 2010 study may be flawed. And last year, the research was debunked by a new paper published by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which refuted the idea of a plateau at any level of income and suggested happiness continues to climb in line with incomes.
But how much is enough? The standard response from me should be that this would be clear if you work with a wealth planner to determine a detailed plan of goals and desired outcomes, map your current finances and understand what needs to happen for you to reach that end state. Without that wealth plan, you can’t quantify what enough is for you.
But, even if you do this, you may never achieve ‘enough’ because we’re conditioned to constantly strive for more, continually chasing those elusive feelings of happiness and success. Even the word happiness itself highlights this given it stems from the Old Norse word hap, which means chance, fate, fortune, or luck. The word also works its way into perhaps the more ominous haphazard through to hapless, i.e. lacking luck. As a verb, we see an active version of hap in happen or ‘chance in action’.
As such, happiness could even be seen as something which is not desirable given its achievement becomes a goal in itself. And in working hard to reach that state, we may even find that happiness eludes us due to the efforts we’re expending!
Known as ‘arrival fallacy’, the belief that we will be happy when we reach a particular goal is increasingly seen as false. Instead, our moment of achievement quickly passes, we feel a sense of emptiness or even disappointment and, therefore, set off in search of a new hurdle to overcome. It’s a feeling that’s been articulated by Olympic Gold medalists, as well as others who have achieved awe-inspiring feats.
Fortunately, not everyone feels this. Some people realise fulfilment as they are pleased with what they have achieved and enjoy what it’s currently bringing them, and also what that means for those around them. They see the importance of sharing their ‘fortunes’, whether with their teammates, families or with their fan base.
How you might feel more fulfilled
Bear with me here – as it is a little out there – but one of the insights into feeling happy for a lasting period comes from research led by Dr. Rick Hanson, author of The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness. He used three animals to represent the different parts of our brains and illustrate how we are motivated by different needs. The lizard brain is driven by the desire to be free from fear. We have a monkey brain that does our advanced thinking and relationship building. But it is our mouse brain, meanwhile, that craves satisfaction.
Hanson recommends treating each part of the brain as mentally separate: the lizard needs petting; the monkey hugging; and the mouse needs to be fed. But what does that mean in practice since this isn’t indulging in chocolate, wine or your favourite repast? Foodstuffs may initially counter feelings of disappointment, frustration and inadequacy, but probably not for long and you suddenly may find you need to set a new goal linked to exercise and diet!
Instead, Hanson suggests noting your accomplishments, regardless of how small they are, whether it’s finally emailing a friend or crossing off something on a to-do list. We reward ourselves – sometimes even unconsciously – through the release of the naturally powerful stimulants of dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin during exercise. And we can train ourselves to feel that satisfaction in other aspects of life too.
Many for example – by way of an extension from Olympians continuing to push for yet more golds across multiple competitions – achieve a sense of self worth through philanthropy. Charitable giving and volunteering has been shown to be one of the fastest and most reliable ways to improve your mood. Making it part of your life could prove to be extremely beneficial in the long term for you too, especially if you follow a structured approach.
But what else can be done?
Hanson also advocates always remaining mindful of the money that is coming your way, but this doesn’t mean micromanaging your finances. You don’t need to ponder every peak in your portfolio, or every pound you’re making in interest, but instead the focus should be on the feelings of confidence that well-managed wealth brings you. And so much the better if that wealth is working for you, and for the most important people in your life, because of a holistic, considered approach you’ve adopted. And professional advice can provide new areas for satisfaction and validation for the path taken.
This is why, whatever your level of ambition, and however you personally define ‘success’, talking to a wealth manager could help clarify your thinking with regard to the future of your finances. And – perhaps more importantly – help you to feel a longer-lasting satisfaction with life, more than a little long-term happiness and a sense that you understand what your enough encompasses, now and in the future.
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Any examples of investments and structures used are for illustrative purposes only. The inclusion does not constitute an invitation or inducement to buy any financial investment or service. None of the content constitutes advice or a personal recommendation. Nedbank Private Wealth does not provide individual tax advice, and instead works with clients’ existing advisers or can provide an introduction if needed. Individuals should seek professional advice, based on their jurisdiction and personal circumstances, before making any financial decision.