Can I Buy Me Happiness

August 23, 2023


Exercising makes us healthier and happier.

Few would question that statement. But do you wonder if this can be measured? How much do we need? How much happier does it make us? And where is that sweet spot where the least excruciating amount of exercising intersects with the highest degree of happiness.?

Or am I the only one who insists on wrangling unmeasurbles into objective units that can be charted and compared?

running shoes hand weights
Image by Steve Buissinne

A group of researchers from Yale and Oxford Universities decided to use the number of days someone felt well or unwell as a measurement for happiness. Their study asked 1.2 million Americans: "How many times have you felt mentally unwell in the past 30 days, for example, due to stress, depression, or emotional problems?" Participants were also asked about the physical activities they did: gardening, cleaning, chasing after small children were all included.

The result-- that people who weren't physically active were unhappy more days than those who were--surprised no one.

What was more surprising had to do with another variable: money.

According to the study, participants who weren’t active felt the same level of happiness as those who were more active. If they earned $25,000 more a year.  

What conclusions do you draw from that?

That money can buy happiness? That if you don’t like to exercise, you’d better be rich? That we will feel a bump in our happiness level when our income rises by $25,000?

It’s tempting to make cynical conclusions. Doing that, however, won’t change anything or make us feel better.

Yes, we already know that money can contribute to happiness. It's not difficult to see why. With money, we eat better and have more access to healthcare. With money, we don’t have to worry about electricity bills and how to share one computer among all the members of the family who now depend on it for school and work. With money, we can buy a better cello for the child who finds comfort in playing music and weighted blanket for the one whose anxiety disrupts their sleep.

We don’t need this study to tell us that. What it can do, however, is narrow the parameters of what questions to ask.

This is the question I propose: of these variables--the amount of money and the amount of physical activity, which can we control?

Can we control how much money we make? Sure, to an extent. We can choose to work hard instead of taking it easy. We can choose to tackle, instead of avoid, difficult tasks. We can choose to keep learning instead on relaying on our current knowledge. All those things can, and often times do, bring us more money.

But, as many elements as we can control in this process, there are at least as many that we cannot: how customers relate to our marketing efforts, what our competitors are doing, social and economic developments.

What about physical activity, how much control do we have?

You and I know the answer: we have complete control. There are no extrinsic forces that make us hang onto the remote or smart phone, to stay on the couch or in front of the computer. We have complete agency over whether we want to get up and move.

I’m not saying it’s easy. We have many reasons within us to choose something else. Maybe it’s the worry that if we don’t keep working on our business, it will fail. Maybe it’s fatigue that keeps us mindlessly swiping. Maybe it’s depression sucking energy out of us.  

No, not easy. But necessary.

The study might not have shown us anything we didn’t already know. But with its large sample size and attempt to put concrete numbers on what is impossible to measure, it may be just the last piece of fuel for us to motivate us to do what we know is necessary for us.

Times are weird now. And difficult. If there is any time when we need to do everything we can to make sure we not only survive but thrive, it is now.

Make an extra $25,000. Or get up and move.

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