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For happiness, money's a tool, not a yardstick

My husband and I love to play golf. A four-hour round is like a mini-vacation, a time of total relaxation and enjoyment. We witness all manner of wildlife in a natural setting at the public course we regularly play: blue herons, crimson cardinals, tall and elegant sandhill cranes, and yes, the occasional snake or alligator. It's an opportunity to hone a skill amid beautiful surroundings.

But if I were to compare my score to that of my husband, I would have a lousy time. He shoots in the 80s. I'm usually one or two strokes away from breaking 100. Rather than compete with him, I just play my own best game and revel in the day.

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Keeping score
It's easy to keep score when it comes to money. Money lends itself to mathematical computations. It manifests itself in an obvious way through the things people buy.

But we can get into trouble when we equate money with personal worth, when we rely on it to increase our self-esteem, when we believe it's the source of our happiness. And we can fall into a deep trap if we compare our lifestyle or our material possessions with those who have more money than we do.

In her book, "Money & Happiness, A Guide to Living the Good Life," author Laura Rowley explores the correlation between the tangible measure of value and the ethereal state of mind.

"Most money guides operate under the assumption that if you have enough information and take action, you can build wealth and be happy. But that leap from wealth to happiness is neither easy nor obvious," she says. "I believe that you first have to define what 'the rich life' means to you, what ideas, activities and relationships you value, and what you're striving for personally -- then use money to build that life."

Money thus becomes a tool, a means to an end. It should function within a framework of absolute standards that you set up, based on your values, rather than one relative to the standards of others.

Joneses? We don't know any Joneses
An important step -- and a liberating one at that -- is to avoid making comparisons between yourself and the Joneses next door or anyone else who evokes that ugly emotion, envy. Your happiness depends on your ability to be focused strictly on your own strengths, goals and personal values rather than on those of others.

"Scientific research supports the link between happiness and avoiding comparisons," Rowley writes. "In a series of studies, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California-Riverside had her subjects perform a word-game task. She then planted false indicators of success or failure, such as allowing participants to see that other people completed the test more quickly. Lyubomirsky found that happy people are better at disregarding information about others' success. They concentrate on their own abilities instead. ... Meanwhile, unhappy people tend to dwell on negative feelings about themselves and others."

Using personal anecdotes and a great deal of research to buttress her arguments, Rowley helps readers get in touch with how to align their money goals with their values.

And she acknowledges that it's true that money does facilitate happiness -- to a certain extent at least. Without any, you'd be worrying about food, shelter and achieving some degree of comfort on a daily basis.

But surprisingly, the extremely wealthy are not appreciably happier than the average person. A study by psychology professor Ed Diener at the University of Illinois shows that "the obscenely wealthy -- the Forbes' 100 richest Americans -- scored only slightly above the average Joe on the happiness scale," Rowley notes.

-- Posted: May 25, 2005




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