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Monks, Not McMansions, May Hold the Key to Happiness

Meanwhile, you discover several unpleasant aspects to your new place. A house that's twice as big requires twice as long to clean, and the commuting time to your office is now two hours a day instead of 30 minutes. Though it's easy to become accustomed to a positive change and move on, you never get used to activities that are painful and irritating such as a long commute, Rayo said.

This unending cycle of serial interests and constant impulse to compare what we have now with what we might have in the future is wired into our brains, and there's an evolutionary reason for it, Rayo explained. Fifty thousand years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, it served us well. To elude predators, our eyes developed the ability to judge moving objects and colors by comparing them with the background landscape. To ensure there would be enough food and water for everyone, our brains developed the ability to continually look ahead and press on to find new food sources.

In today's world, this strategy does not always serve us well, Rayo pointed out.

More important, he went on to say, the psychology literature and surveys clearly show that not all happiness is ephemeral and geared to endlessly moving targets. With nonmaterial things, the target does not move.

"Exercise will absolutely make you feel better. Your social network, family and friends can bring permanent happiness. Longtime relationships can bring long-term satisfaction."

One reason for this, Rayo said, is that our relationships with friends and families do not have a lot of "status differentiation." Though you may think that this sounds ridiculous, Rayo said that brain scans and hormone fluctuations in our bloodstream show that our brains are designed to know where we fit into the pecking order, and we're uncomfortable when we're not among equals. Our brains are also very sensitive to material success and who has more or less than we do.

How does this square with choosing a house that will make us happy? Rayo suggests a house with enough space to meet your needs while accommodating a practical, relaxing lifestyle. Everyone's situation is different, but as you make the decision, he said, be honest about your motivation.

Will the added square feet in the big, new house make you more comfortable?

If the goal is to impress your peers and friends, "You'll lose the race of winning and you'll be stressed," he said. Is your kitchen a place to hang out and be comfortable or will it be, as Rayo put it, a "slick intimidation statement about my wealth?" Will the $50,000 array of solar panels on your new roof that will generate all your household electricity needs "bring a sense of personal satisfaction or give you bragging rights?"

The latter are "not a sustainable source of happiness," Rayo said. "When consumption extends beyond your needs and the goal is to impress others, you should be suspicious; it will not lead to happiness."

Does Rayo follow his own advice? He lives in a condo in downtown Chicago that is a 10-minute train commute from his office. He doesn't have a car. His condo is a modestly sized, two-bedroom unit. He spends a lot of time with his wife, he exercises, but he confessed, "I'm not immune to status seeking. I spend a lot of time working."

What is the scientific proof that a modest lifestyle is the path to happiness? Rayo said one example is Buddhist monks. They eat the same food and wear the same clothes every day. With years of meditation they lose interest in the "next new thing and the moving target," he said. "And their brain scans show that they are happier than most people in a scientifically measurable way."

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site,

© 2007, Katherine Salant, Distributed by Inman News Features

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company