It’s Not ‘What’ Makes You Happy – It’s ‘Who’

March 6, 2018
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Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

By Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

So, other than positive attitude and resilience, what else makes us happy? The surprising answer isn’t actually what, but who.

Most people say they want to be happier, but do you really know what makes you happy? Most say that more money will do it. But research shows money is important, but not as important as you might think. How do you think you would you feel if you won a million dollars? Think it would make you happy? The amazing answer is that it would – but only for a while. One of the most quoted studies on lottery winners found that winning the lottery would make your happiness skyrocket. But in a few months most people go back to feeling about as happy as they were before the winnings.

And for some people winning the lottery made them anything but happy. A man from West Virginia won $315 million in 2002. Within five years he had been arrested for drunk driving twice, had his home, office and car broken into, and had spent almost all his winnings. He was quoted as saying “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”

Scientists studying the sort of thing that gives us sudden happiness find that big positive events don’t necessarily change your personality or your family. There is also the fact that money doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. If you have a part-time job and are making $10,000 a year and suddenly get a raise of $5,000 that 5,000 will mean a lot. But if you are Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of the richest people in the world, that $5,000 doesn’t mean the same thing.

What about extremely poor people? Can they be happy without money? What if I told you that researchers who studied dumpster-divers, people who survive by going through other people’s garbage, found that the majority of them were happy with their lives. Think about this for a minute. The garbage pickers survive by eating food they find, and who get all their clothing from the dumpsters. In one study the average amount of money they make a day is about $3 from things they find they can recycle. What is amazing about this research is that not only are these dumpster-divers not depressed, they are optimistic, have good relationships, and many of them play sports and read. How can this be?

Research has shown that the things we buy don’t necessarily make us happy. What does increase our happiness is having more time to enjoy ourselves and having support and connection with family. It is our friends and those we enjoy spending time with that is more important than money, or things we can buy. It is the people in our life, not our possessions that are the measure of how happy we are. In fact one consistent finding is that everything from our health to our happiness improves when our social relations improve.

Science has found that who we have in our life, not what we own that will bring us lasting happiness. So the question isn’t how much more money or things will make me happy? The question that leads to happiness is: How can we make our relationships better?

Dan Tomasulo holds a Ph.D. in psychology, an MFA in writing and a masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches positive psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information, visit his website

Dan Tomasulo’s column appears monthly in the print edition of The Two River Times. This column was first published in the March 1-8, 2018 print edition. 

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