How To Buy Happiness. Cheap.
Is having lots of bucks not bringing you lots of bliss? Maybe the problem is all in your head
By David Futrelle

(MONEY Magazine) – Make love, not money. That was the most unusual message of a research note this summer from stock strategist James Montier at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, urging his well-heeled clients to set aside thoughts of stocks for a moment and to focus instead on the things that really make folks happy—namely love, sex, exercise and sleep.

As frivolous as it sounds, this is much better advice than you'll usually hear from Wall Street. For all the energy we spend chasing the green stuff, studies reveal that for most people the old saw is all too true: Money won't buy you happiness.

Sure, in any given country at any given point in time, the rich tend to be a bit happier than the poor. But across-the-board increases in living standards don't seem to make people any happier. Disposable income for the average American has grown about 80% since 1972, but the percentage describing themselves as "very happy" (roughly a third) has barely budged over the years, according to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Why is this? Well, as Cornell University economist Robert Frank notes, we humans are highly adaptable animals, quickly adjusting our expectations to new realities. As living standards increase, most of us respond by raising our own standards. Things that once seemed luxuries now seem necessities. Call it the "once they've seen Paris" effect. As a result, we're working harder than ever to buy stuff that satisfies us less and less.

How to snap this vicious cycle? New research in psychology and economics offers practical suggestions on how to increase your consumer satisfaction—without increasing spending.

• IF YOU CAN'T BE WITH THE STUFF YOU LOVE, LOVE THE STUFF YOU'RE WITH. Research by Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, found that people encouraged to keep "gratitude journals" were far more satisfied with their lives than those who weren't encouraged to accentuate the positive. So don't waste your life fretting over what you ain't got. Give thanks for what you have—it can actually do you good.

• SPEND SELECTIVELY. Splurge only on those things that really bring you lasting pleasure; skimp on the rest. If you're a true-blue cinephile with a DVD collection to rival Roger Ebert's, it might make sense to invest in a plasma TV. But for most of us a cheaper alternative is more than good enough.

• DON'T BUY THINGS, BUY FREEDOM. While people easily adjust to bigger houses and cars, stress is stress no matter how rich or poor you are. As Frank notes, commuting through congestion is miserable for most of us, whether we've been doing it for four months or 40 years, and an assortment of studies shows that commutes (even as short as 15 minutes a day) can have serious and measurable effects on health. (There's a reason bus drivers seem so grumpy all the time.) If you're working endless hours to finance a lifestyle that isn't making you happy, consider cutting back your hours and getting by on less. It may not be easy to do, but in the long run it's likely to make you far happier than a new SUV ever could. —DAVID FUTRELLE