Editor's note: Join columnist MP Dunleavey and a group of women as they seek to strip away the myths around money, liberate themselves from debt and find financial sanity. Follow the quest of the Women in Red every other Wednesday in Dunleavey's column on MSN Money, and join the discussion on the Women in Red message board.
When I set out to write my new book, "Money Can Buy Happiness," I thought I knew exactly where I was headed.
I wanted to debunk the old cliché that money can't buy happiness by showing that if you spend your money on quality of life, rather than stuff, you will end up with much higher happiness dividends as a result.
Unfortunately, I also discovered that you can spend months reading a jillion studies by psychologists and economists and all the king's men -- as I did -- and yet still need a few lessons about how to invest in happiness yourself.
I hate when that happens.
Bridging the gapThe research showed that what makes people happiest includes:
- Connection to other people, through relationships and/or community.
- Free time to enjoy life (long hours spent working and commuting being a major source of stress and unhappiness).
- Exploring yourself or building your skills and strengths.
- Good health.
To that I added a couple of things I think no one can be happy without:
- Financial sanity (i.e. getting out of debt and planning for the future).
The only thing groundbreaking about these ideas was that the choice to lead a happier life isn't philosophical. It's financial.
Clearly, I couldn't finish the book until I had recalculated a few of my own financial decisions to be more in sync with my personal happiness.
Little did I know the unexpected bonus that was in store for me.
MP takes her own adviceI had to ask myself the following questions:
- People need to balance different aspects of their well-being, the same way an investor balances a stock portfolio. One person might need to invest more in his family life; another might need to expand her intellectual horizons. What were the areas of my own life that were underperforming? Where were the happiness dividends lagging?
- Like many people, I felt like every dollar in my pocket was already accounted for. If I were to invest more in my own happiness, where would the money come from? What trade-offs was I willing to make?
- Was I willing to give up a few old habits -- and the perpetual half-hidden fantasy that if I were rich, then I'd be happy -- and take the steps necessary to change my outlook and my life?
What's funny is that until I put myself through this process, I had assumed I was pretty happy. I loved my work. My marriage was great. I had more down time than a lot of folks. My finances felt pretty secure.
But the research I was doing inspired me to realize that my happiness yields were low in a few key sectors. My physical well-being was only so-so. I had free time but didn't always use it well. My connections to friends and loved ones had become distant and dependent on e-mail. And although my work was satisfying, I felt some bigger piece of my life was missing.