Recently, I wrote about some studies on wealth and happiness that came out around 20 years ago. In the work I had read during my undergraduate studies in philosophy, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2004) by Martin Seligman, studies showed that earning more money is only beneficial to our happiness to a certain extent.
Once we reach a living wage, where we can afford the basics we need in life and a few pleasures, more money only offers marginal increases in happiness. Of course, many people live well below this threshold, and for them, extra money removes a great deal of stress, thus bringing happiness.
Now new data suggests that this remains true. Of course, more money always seems to offer more happiness, but the rewards are diminishing the higher you go. So giving up time with family or vacations or hobbies to make that extra five or ten percent over your current salary might not be wise. You’d be better off scaling down spending: buying an older (but still reliable) car, eating out at the fifteen dollar a meal restaurant instead of the thirty dollar a meal place, and second-guessing some of those frivolous purchases you’d like to make.
Renunciation as a Positive Step in Life
All of these moves can be considered mini-renunciations. The term renunciation doesn’t tend to have the best connotations these days. We think of monks in drab robes walking silently through ancient European monasteries or Asian jungles.
But the practice can be an excellent gift to ourselves without radically changing our lives. In a recent interview, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto said that renunciation can be for ordinary lay people. We must realize that everything we consume also consumes us—it consumes our time, our mental energy, sometimes our health, and of course the environment.
One Buddhist monk I knew years ago put it similarly, saying, “Everything you own, owns you.” We rarely think about the cost of all of our possessions beyond the purchase price. But think about the time we spend fiddling with the stuff in our life. The more we have, the more complex this becomes. We have to arrange our things. We have to store our things. We have to clean our things. And on and on.
And with everything we own, we know it will break one day. Or it will simply become obsolete. So we worry and we maybe shop for replacements early or spend hours researching for the next purchase.
If this sounds like you, and I know I identify with this quite a lot, consider ways of simplifying your life. Like many practices we undertake, this won’t be done in a simple single pass. It takes time and commitment. There will be steps forward and steps back. But by setting our mind on a goal of simplicity and working on it a little every day, we can make progress.
As renunciates the world over have known for centuries, happiness is not found in things but in experiences. For most, the experiences that bring the greatest happiness include self-cultivation and development. Often a set of virtues arises from their practice and these virtues are passed down to others. Common virtues include generosity, fortitude, patience, equanimity, and wisdom.
Researchers have also found that certain activities seem to bring happiness. In the “Mappiness project,” founded by the British economists Susana Mourato and George MacKerron, several activities were found to significantly boost happiness. The researchers asked people at random times to report what they were doing, who they were with, and how happy they felt.
These “moment in time” studies revealed certain things that we might find obvious. For instance, three activities that make most people quite happy are sex, exercise, and gardening. Being around friends also increases happiness significantly, as do warm, sunny days. Being in nature is a consistent source of happiness, and particularly near a body of water in great scenery.
The researchers also confirmed previous studies showing that social media makes us unhappy. Of the many ways we can pass our free time, from books to TV, walks or hobbies, social media ranked dead last in promoting happiness. So be careful with how much time you spend on social media (I write after closing the Twitter tab on my computer for the third time in the last hour!).
Big Moves, Slower Life
With such information in hand, it is little surprise that many people are moving to places like Missoula Montana to find happiness. We have a relatively slow pace of life—though traffic is much worse than it was even a few years ago. Costs are low compared to many coastal cities. And nature is abundant. A beautiful river passes through much of the city while a second one meanders along the west edge of town. Mountains ring the valley, with abundant public hiking access in virtually all directions. And parks and greenery are plentiful in the city as well.
Economists Ed Glaeser and Josh Gottlieb conducted a study of happiness levels in major cities in America in 2014 and found that places with slower lifestyles and abundant nature tend to make people the happiest. While Missoula wasn’t on their list, Charlottesville, Virginia was ranked first, followed by Rochester, Minnesota, Lafayette, Louisiana, and Naples, Florida, all smaller cities with abundant opportunities to enjoy nature. Urban cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, and San Francisco all ranked at the bottom of their list.
While cities do offer opportunities at key points in our lives, many of us will recognize that the drawbacks ultimately diminish our feelings of happiness. But if we do find ourselves in a big city, the best thing we can do is to live near nature: a large park, a lake or river, etc. And then get out into that nature as much as possible. And bring friends.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.