How to be happy with what you have

Here and Now

This story was originally reported by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

At President Johnson’s second inauguration in 1965, Rabbi Hyman Schachtel said, “happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” His statement got psychologist Jeff Larsen thinking: How can people truly be happy? Is it really possible to just be happy with what you have?

The Rabbi’s statement is “a little too simplistic in suggesting that happiness is not one thing, it’s the other,” Larsen told PRI’s Here and Now. “What our data suggest is that happiness is both having what you want and wanting what you have.”

There are really two ways of being more happy, according to Larsen: One is to go out and buy more things that you want. He says, “It may not be such a bad thing — if you’ve got some extra money lying around, and you’ve got some unfulfilled want — to go out and buy it.”

But there is a cheaper way to happiness, according to Larsen: “Take the things that you’ve already got and want them more than you do.”

The happiness isn’t simply complacency, either. “What we’ve found is that people who want what they have actually find more meaning in their life,” according to Larsen. “They’re not just happier, they live a more meaningful life.”

This advice doesn’t work for everyone, Larsen admits. For the majority of the world’s population, people living on less than $10 per day, the research doesn’t really apply.

But for many in the United States, Larsen advises people to look at what they have and “call your attention to those things.” Keep a gratitude journal or figure out ways to remind yourself. He also advises that people “avoid paying attention to the things you don’t have. But that can be a big challenge.”

“Here and Now” is an essential midday news magazine for those who want the latest news and expanded conversation on today’s hot-button topics: public affairs, foreign policy, science and technology, the arts and more. More “Here and Now”.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.