The Dalai Lama has written that the secret to happiness “is not to have what we want, but rather to want and appreciate what we have.” That can be tough advice to follow in a culture where people measure their lives by their number of possessions. But does research really support the Dalai Lama’s adage?

Psychologists Jeff Larsen and Amie McKibban tried to determine whether the key to happiness truly is, as the Dalai Lama says, wanting what we have, or if there’s just as much happiness to gain from getting what we want.

© Brad Aldridge

Larsen and McKibban asked 245 undergraduate college students to fill out a survey measuring how happy they were. Then the students reviewed a list of 52 items, most of which were material goods, such as a cell phone, microwave, and a car. They indicated whether they had each item or not, and reported the degree to which they wanted it. The list was notable for what it generally left out: non-material items such as relationships, hobbies, and job satisfaction—the kinds of things that prior research has often linked to happiness.

The results indicated that, sure enough, people who actually wanted the things they had were happier—yet so were the people who had the things they said they wanted. They also found that people who scored high on a test to measure their level of gratitude were likely to be the people who wanted what they had.

According to the authors, this suggests “the effect of possessions on well-being depends on how people value those possessions.” In other words, happiness does not come from accruing lots of stuff, but rather from keeping a positive attitude toward the stuff we do have.

They note, however, that these findings may not apply equally toward the wealthy and the poor. “We would find it absurd,” they write, “to encourage those struggling with poverty to be content with their lot in life.”

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