Want to be happy? Don’t just sit there

Experiences beat possessions. Everytime. If you’ve got limited money, cautions the professor to his students, spend it on a great vacation, not a new stereo or a closet full of new clothes.

Every year, during his first lecture in his “Introduction to Social Psychology Course” at Cornell University, Professor Tom Gilovich, greets his students with some advice.

It’s the only advice he’ll provide to them during the semester, but it’s worth their attention. Professor Gilovich offers up a few keys to finding more happiness. Come to think of it, it’s worth ours as well.

This isn’t a collection of keys-to-the-kingdom observations Gilovich has made during his three decades of teaching Ivy League students. These are conclusions drawn from volumes of research offering concrete steps to improve the often fruitless pursuit of the elusive state of well-being.

The first thing the professor tells his students – take action.

Cornell University Professor Tom Gilovich (Credit: Professor Tom Gilovich)

The way he sees it, evolution has left us with a desire to act, not to sit. Ask people at the end of their lives about their regrets, says Gilovich, and you’ll find many more people harboring regrets about actions they never took, as opposed to the ones they did.

We’re not made to sit around and be passive. When TV watchers are asked at any given moment if watching TV makes them happy, they may say yes. But happiness isn’t limited to what someone is doing at any given moment. Happiness is a state of mind determined partly by one’s feelings when they look back on their choices. The research shows many people who said they were content watching TV when asked while they were watching TV. The next day, those same people reported they were not as happy looking back at how they spent their time. Many felt they could have spent their time better doing other things. They could have been doing something active.

Which brings us to Gilovich’s point number two. Experiences beat possessions. Every time. If you’ve got limited money, cautions the professor to his students, spend it on a great vacation, not a new stereo or a closet full of new clothes. Ask people what makes them happier, their most significant material purchase in the last five years or their most significant experience? Gilovich did and it wasn’t even close. Experiences beat purchases roughly 3:1.

Which is where his third point comes in, something he calls the rule of “peaks and ends.” Think again about how we think about an experience, not only how we felt in the moment, but also how we remember it (see three paragraphs up – watching TV). There’s a corollary. How long something lasts isn’t as important as the quality of peak feelings produced by the experience. Recollections, he says, are based on how good or bad something is, as well as what it was like at the end of the experience. So if you’re choosing between two weeks in Fiji, but just getting there leaves you unable to do the things you’d like, or a shorter, less glamorous vacation with a chance to knock out one or two really special events – choose the latter. And do something really special the last day. It will stay in your memory longer, and shape your lasting impression of how happy the vacation made you.

We listen to a wide variety of people when it comes to our search for happiness: clergy, therapists, talk show hosts. Who knows, maybe the Ivy League professor is on to a few things worth contemplating.

Jim Axelrod is a CBS News National Correspondent. His book “In The Long Run” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May.