Caring will make you happy

Photo by Totte Jonsson

With the new school year nearly upon us, now might be a good time for a feel-good story:

The Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

We Americans might be starting to get the message. In a recent New York Times article, Stephanie Rosenbloom reports on the changing nature of the American marketplace. Last June consumers saved 6.4 percent of their after-tax income. Before the recession that number was between 1 and 2 percent.

This partially explains why the American economy isn’t bouncing back from recession, but it also means American values are shifting. We’re learning that conspicuous consumption doesn’t fulfill us like we’ve been told it would. We’re not as concerned with keeping up with the Joneses as we used to be, maybe because we’ve seen how that game ends. (Large tombstone; small, noticeably dry-eyed funeral party.)

What we’re spending our money on, instead of stuff, is experience. As Rosenbloom reports, “According to retailers and analysts, consumers have gravitated more toward experiences than possessions over the last couple of years, opting to use their extra cash for nights at home with family, watching movies and playing games – or for ‘staycations’ in the backyard.”

This is a positive development. Researchers have concluded that spending money on experience makes us happier than spending it on stuff. “‘It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch’ is basically the idea,” says Elizabeth W. Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Along the same lines, Thomas DeLeire, who studies consumption at the University of Wisconsin, has found that money spent on leisure (“vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles”) is the only spending that’s positively related to happiness. “Leisure,” Rosenbloom notes, is really just the way in which we bond with others. When we strengthen those bonds, we feel happier.

These findings match the anecdotal evidence recorded by Roko Belic, the filmmaker behind the forthcoming documentary Happy. He traveled around the world finding out what makes people happy, and he now  lives in a trailer park in Malibu so he can surf whenever he wants. He told Rosenbloom the trailer park is “the first real community that I’ve lived in in my life… It definitely has made me happier… The things we are trained to think make us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and buying the latest fashions, don’t make us happy.”

Belic also told Rosenbloom what he learned in making his documentary: “the one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.”

So, brave character educators, keep building those relationships. Keep teaching your students how important the people in their lives are.

And don’t forget to reward yourselves. (But maybe go for a nice dinner with family or friends, or take a camping trip. The joy will last longer than that of a new TV.)

Best of luck in the 2010-2011 school year,