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(HOST) As we all begin to wish one another “Happy Holidays,” commentator Brendan Fisher considers what science has learned about what makes us happy.

(FISHER) Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. In my normal day there are a lot of happy moments: my morning walk with my wife and dog, daily exercise, and time spent socializing with friends and co-workers. These parts of my day bring me happiness. But what is it exactly about these activities that
makes me happy?

Sociologists, psychologists and recently economists have also been thinking about happiness — asking questions like: what makes people happy? And what things have a lasting effect
on our happiness?

A common belief is that if we had more money we’d be happier. But recent research suggests that extra income has little to no effect on our overall happiness. In fact, people’s reported level of happiness in industrialized countries has remained the same since World War II despite large gains in income. The reason behind this is something researchers call “hedonic adaptation” — which basically says that as we satisfy some need or goal, new ones appear.

For example, let’s say I’m lost in the desert. After a day or so
all I’ll want is water. Well, once I find water, I’m going to want some food. After I eat I’ll probably start wishing I had someone to talk to, and so on.

Sure, these are basic needs; but the same thing happens with luxury goods. My stereo works fine, and I love my CD collection; but now there’s the IPOD. If my IPOD is 2 years old, I’ll need a new one that also plays videos; and what happens two years from now when an IPOD is also a phone? Well, I’ll need one of those, too; but will it really improve my happiness?

If more income and more stuff have no real lasting effect on my happiness, what does? Studies show that good health, marriage, and leisure time are all things with which there is low hedonic adaptation. Meaning we don’t get bored with them. Also, cultural goods like art, music, dance and literature are less subject to hedonic adaptation.

Unfortunately, in our culture we spend a disproportionate amount of time on things like over-working, and over-shopping. The cost is less time with our friends and family and possible costs to our personal health. Sure, working is a necessity, but if I’m over-
working to buy things that won’t have a lasting effect on my happiness, instead of spending time on things that do, then something is wrong.

So in this season of shopping, this research is good news. The results may be somewhat obvious, but they’re still inspiring. We just need more reminders that spending time with family and friends and keeping healthy will have long-lasting effects on our happiness. Never mind chasing more money and buying more stuff. This winter I’m hoping for lots of snow — and a holiday season where I spend more time with my friends and family and less time shopping for them.

I’m Brendan Fisher of Burlington.

Brendan Fisher is a Ph.D. student in ecological economics at the University of Vermont.

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