Revisiting The Happiness Scale

Several days ago, I wrote a lengthy review of Stumbling on Happiness, where I discussed the idea of a happiness scale:

Take a set of experiences in your life and put them on a scale of 1 to 10, where the 10 is the greatest happiness you’ve ever experienced. For most people, experiences above a 2 or a 3 put them in a positive mood. Now, imagine a piece of your favorite kind of cake. Where does it rank on that scale? For some people, it might rank a 3, or a 5 – it depends on a lot of different factors.

Since I wrote that, the idea of a happiness scale and how it relates to my financial state has been floating around in my mind quite a bit, to the point where I tried to figure out a happiness scale for my own life. Doing this brought about a number of revelations about life and money, but I thought I’d walk through the whole thing first.

First of all, I tried to determine the happiest moment in my life, and eventually determined that it was the immediate aftermath of my wedding, starting with the drive from the wedding to the reception on through the honeymoon. The next closest moment was the birth of my first child. Those register as roughly a 10 and a 9.8 (or so) on my scale.

I then tried to determine the saddest moment of my life, and the best I could think of was the morning after my dad caught spinal meningitis and my grandma was trying to prepare me for him passing away (thankfully, he recovered after a very long hospital stay, including some very frightening periods). I was rather young and the thought of my father dying was almost unimaginable. That, of course, would be a zero. I then decided that an average day – on average – would be somewhere around a two, and started trying to give scores to other things in my life.

I do have a point, just bear with me.

What I found was that almost everything I marked as a deeply happy moment didn’t cost very much money at all when you got right down to it. Sure, my wedding and honeymoon was expensive, but the birth of my child was covered by insurance and almost every other very happy moment in my life was free or nearly free.

Most of them revolved around family, personal accomplishment, and learning. Every moment that was truly joyous in my life was heavily tied to at least one of those areas.

Even more interesting, I started to try to “score” things I do normally in my daily life. What were the happiest moments of an average day? What moments filled me with satisfaction, but not deep joy? What was I indifferent about, and what did I dislike?

I found several interesting things.

The highest points were almost completely cost-free. The highest point is usually playing with my son, particularly when we’re both in a rather playful mood, which happens several times a week. After that comes conversations with my wife, who is my spiritual and mental equal and partner. Holding my daughter when she’s awake and happy is right up there, too, but probably not quite as high as those two.

Most of the things that cost money, such as video games, were lower. They were well above average, but they rarely reached the peaks of the other events. The only thing that comes close is when I play games with my friends and family, but that’s largely because of the social interaction.

What does that mean? The really valuable things in my life right now don’t cost significant amounts of money. In fact, the things I do that really bring value to me are either nearly free (reading, writing) or can actually save money as compared to “normal” living (cooking). It also made me somewhat less interested in my more expensive hobbies – when I actually sat down and looked at the value and happiness they contribute to my life per dollar, they’re not much of a value.

Here’s the take-home: spend some time thinking about the things that bring you the most joy, then compare that joy to the things you do in your everyday life. Do the things you do for entertainment and enjoyment bring you an appropriate amount of joy for the amount of money you spend on them, especially as compared to other options in your life?

In a way, this means that I find extra fulfillment in frugal activity. Knowing that I’m not spending money to enjoy something deepens that enjoyment a bit more, while knowing that I’m spending a lot of money for enjoyment lessens that enjoyment a bit.

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