Growing up in small-town Iowa, I was close to my grandmother. Our relationship, however, was far from a textbook version.
Instead of learning how to bake pies, decorate cookies, or weave quilts, I learned how to shop. We’d stroll Des Moines malls for hours, retiring only once the weight of the stuff-filled bags in our hands had nearly worn blisters on our palms.
Looking back now, I know my grandmother had a compulsive shopping disorder. Around six percent of adults in the United States do. It’s described as the compulsion to spend money, regardless of need or financial means. And spend money she did.
All three of her homes were adorned with every design element and her expansive closets were full of name-brand clothes—90% of which still had the tags on them.
Grandma modeled many positive qualities, like unceasing kindness and utmost respect for others. But through our shopping trips, I was learning an important lesson—more stuff equaled more happiness, or so this exposure firmly led me to believe.
I carried this mindset into my 20s and early 30s, amassing a myriad of stuff—all in the pursuit of happiness. But I never could quite find the possession that delivered complete contentment.
Living a minimalist lifestyle for the past three years has completely overturned this consumer-driven mindset. I’ve learned how little I actually need to be happy and that happiness doesn’t come from my stuff.
Truth is, we’re all pursuing happiness. And though not all cases are as extreme as my grandmother’s, many of us live in a cycle of placating our discontentment with possessions. Or wealth. Or success. Or beauty. Or whatever else society says will deliver happiness.
Joshua Becker, in his new book Things That Matter, calls these pursuits “happiness dead ends”—things our culture promises will make us happy, which science discloses do not.
While society assures arriving at happiness stems from looking out for oneself, a closer look proves otherwise:
While we all need some amount of money and material possessions to meet our basic needs, the accumulation of wealth doesn’t promise happiness.
Becker cites a University of California study that revealed amassing wealth tends to make people less generous and more isolated. Generosity and relational connectedness are precursors of happiness—wealth diminishes both. Despite what our culture claims, our pursuit of happiness isn’t satisfied by material riches.
Does achieving fame and success solidify contentment? Observing celebrities and influencers on social media makes us assume, yes. Again, science says no.
Becker highlights a University of Rochester New York study that showed college graduates who attained wealth and fame-related goals post-graduation were less happy than those who achieved intrinsic goals such as personal growth. Those who strived for success reported feeling they were living their lives in predetermined ways. The participants who focused on personal growth, relationships, and helping in the community reported significant increases in life satisfaction, well-being, and happiness. Fame isn’t where happiness is found.
Surely beauty promises happiness? The $60 billion dollar beauty industry would say so. Science would not.
Becker discusses a Psychology Today article looking at cosmetic surgery and happiness. Investing in plastic surgery doesn’t actually make people feel better about themselves—tummy tucks and nose jobs don’t address underlying issues like low self-esteem, depression, or unhappiness. One study followed 1,500 teenage girls for 13 years, not knowing which would undergo cosmetic surgery. Those who did have surgery were more likely to be anxious or depressed than those who did not. Perfecting our physical appearance doesn’t promise happiness.
If self-centered pursuits of happiness fall short, what does science support? Servanthood.
While we all need to practice self-care in order to best serve others, adopting a mindset of “selfless living” best prepares us for a life of increased meaning and happiness.
In Becker’s own Things That Matter survey, the majority of people (60%) reported finding greater joy in helping others than in fulfilling their own desires. A University of Pittsburgh study performed brain scans on participants who chose to help others and on participants who chose to do something to benefit themselves. Those who chose service showed increased activity in the brain’s reward centers and decreased activity in areas related to elevated stress, blood pressure, and inflammation.
If you want to increase your happiness and life satisfaction levels, the answer lies in habitually looking outside yourself. Why not conduct your own experiment and see?
Pause a moment and ask yourself how you could serve today. It could be as simple as cheering up a friend with a phone call or inviting your elderly neighbor out for ice cream. Or, it could be more involved, such as tutoring in a school or serving meals to the homeless.
Happiness, Becker says, isn’t something to pursue at all, but rather something that ensues by living a life of purpose. When we make others-focused choices, happiness naturally comes to us.
The next time you need a happiness boost, resist turning to retail therapy (like I so often did), striving for success, or investing in your physical appearance. Instead, look beyond yourself, see a need, and meet it.
As Becker says, by serving others and pursuing a life of purpose, “The life you change just may be your own.”
For more guidance and inspiration on how to live a meaningful life—with very few regrets—and live out your true purpose in the world, I highly recommend checking out Becker’s new book Things That Matter. (Out today!)
About the Author: Julia Ubbenga is a freelance journalist whose teachings on minimalism, simplicity, and intentional living have reached thousands of people worldwide through her blog richinwhatmatters.com. Julia practices what she preaches in her Kansas City home with her husband, two extremely lively young daughters, and one-year-old son.