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Treat your spouse like a stranger and other surprising research on how to be happy

One way to be happier: Be more enthusiastic when talking to your spouse, much like you would with an acquaintance (iStock)

Does money buy happiness? Can strangers make us happy? Elizabeth Dunn is co-author of the book Happy Money, and a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. What she says may surprise you. She explains:

Q: You study what makes us happy. What’s the answer!?

Dunn: One thing that I was struck by, is that the relationship between money and happiness is much weaker than people assume. In our new paper, one of the most detailed studies of this ever, we looked at people’s day-to-day mood and income. We actually see there’s no relationship between how much people earn and how happy they are on a moment-to-moment basis. There IS a relationship between the levels of money you make and sadness. So money doesn’t make you happier, but it does buffer you against sadness.

Money can get you where you want, so money should make you happier. To the extent that it doesn’t, we wanted to ask, what’s going wrong? How are we failing to buy happiness? In some of my work, we found people can buy happiness more effectively by helping other people, rather than helping themselves. We walked around campus and handed out money. We asked half to spend the money on themselves, and half to spend it on others. We found that the people who were asked to spend money on others, were much happier.

Q: You’ve also studied happiness and romantic relationships. What did you find?

Dunn: That work stemmed from my own relationship with a boyfriend in graduate school. When he was in a little bit of a bad mood, he’d be sulky, because he knew he could get away with not being his most pleasant self around me. But when we bumped into a casual acquaintance, he’d perk up. I thought, this is interesting, why is this happening? So I brought hundreds of undergrads into the lab to see, was this just my old boyfriend, or something that’s part of romantic relationships.

We found that when we’re around our romantic partners, by default, we tend to not necessarily treat them to the cheerful, pleasant, chirpy tones that we use when talking to people we don’t know so well. When we interact with strangers for whom we do put best faces forward, we actually get a mood boost from this positive behavior.

So in our lab, we told half the romantic couples to interact with their partner the way they usually would, and we told half to put their best face forward. We found that when people were told to be their best self, they left the lab feeling significantly happier. That’s important. Think about long- term relationships. We don’t necessarily act like our best selves around the person we care about the most. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have the space to be our grumpy selves in sweat pants. But if that’s all we are, then that’s not such a great thing for our happiness. I would argue it’s worthwhile in our romantic relationships to be the person that you would be around someone you were trying to have an affair with – except that person’s your spouse.

Q: So, be our best selves with our partners, spend money on other people. What else can we do to be happy?

Dunn: Appreciate the surprising and overlooked sources of social interaction in our daily lives. Social psychologists tend to focus on close relationships, and we know from research that they really matter for our happiness and well-being. But interactions with bit players in our daily lives actually really matter, too. In one experiment, we had people carry around these two little clickers, and every time they interacted with someone with whom they had a strong tie, they clicked one clicker. And every time they interacted with someone they didn’t know well, or had a weak tie with, they clicked the other.

What we found was that people felt better on days when they had more interactions with strong ties. But they also felt better when they had more interaction with weak ties. That suggests that the people at the dog park you see and stop to chat with – those interactions actually matter for your happiness, too. So rather than always going on a solitary walk with your dog, it might be worthwhile to stop by the dog park every now and then.

In some of our other work, we look at what happens when you try to maximize efficiency, rather than make the most of social interaction We had another experiment where we approached people outside a busy Starbucks and told some people to get in and out with their coffee as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then we told other people to turn the experience of getting coffee into an actual social interaction. We find people feel significantly happier, and a greater sense of belonging, when they take the time to have that social interaction.

Q: You’ve also done work on happiness and technology. I would say email is making everyone miserable.

Dunn: Technology is here to stay. The problem comes when it permeates everything else we’re doing in a way that potentially pulls us out of those interactions. One experiment we did with people with a lot of email who were feeling overwhelmed, one group, we told to check three to five times a day, and the other group, we told to check as frequently as possible. The people who’d checked three to five times a day reported feeling significantly less stress overall.

That’s consistent with work that shows multi-tasking, constantly flipping back and forth between different kinds of tasks, seems to be cognitively draining in a way that might increase our stress levels. I struggle with this. But I’ve been trying to take my own research seriously and not be constantly logged in, particularly when I’m focused on something. Those days, I really do enjoy just doing one thing. You can learn more about Elizabeth Dunn and her research on her website:

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