Harvard’s most popular class isn’t on law or business; it’s a class on happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of the book “Happier”, teaches the positive psychology course, based on research done by Harvard in partnership with the University of British Columbia. The studies show that, unless people are so extremely poor that each extra dollar would make an enormous difference in their lives, getting more money generally doesn’t lead people to have more positive feelings.
One of many books written on the subject, Sonya Lyubomirsky’s “The How Of Happiness” explains this effect by observing that people tend to be made happy by experiences rather than by possessions.
In my work as a consumer bankruptcy specialist for longer than two decades, I’ve made my own study of the mutual effects of money and happiness. It’s obvious that, for individuals who are consulting an attorney in my field, that experience is hardly one of the high points of their lives. In fact, many are near-exhausted from stress, nearing the last stages of a long struggle to “keep things together” for themselves, their families, and, often, for their businesses. As I described in an earlier blog, Bankruptcy Blog Shares Message With The Oprah Show, I try hard to convey two messages to my clients: “You are not alone!” and “Help is here!”
It’s interesting that the British Columbia/Harvard study was mentioned in last month’s issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. College students surveyed ahead of the study thought extra money would indeed add to people’s happiness. But the study itself revealed that people who shared the money with others proved to be happier than those who spent it on themselves.
My own “fix” on these study results is this: Many bankruptcy clients suffer from feelings of embarrassment and shame as we discuss foreclosure, bankruptcy, and business failure. These clients are focused on their own feelings. Everyone else, they think, will pity them or look down on them, so they feel isolated from others. I know that focusing on others will help them heal. And, while these clients have no extra money to share with others at this point in their lives, they can share their time and their affection and friendship. I try to turn their attention away from themselves and their immediate problems, and have them focus on the fresh start they’ll be making towards their future as they emerge from bankruptcy.