How to be happy: 'The January sales have sent me into a downward spiral'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The sales are all but over and you might be looking at your hard-won bargains and asking yourself, "Can you buy happiness?" Sarah thought so, spending increasingly more every week on clothes, handbags, shoes and make-up to give her mood an instant "lift". Unfortunately, credit-card crisis hit home every month, leaving Sarah feeling even more vulnerable to a quick fix of feel-good consumption, and her finances and emotions started to spiral downwards.

Rapidly accumulating material possessions creates what positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls the "hedonic treadmill". We get on this treadmill every time we buy ourselves new things, take them for granted and forget to savour them. Adapting to these new things rapidly, we raise the stakes and our desire for novelty escalates. Soon, one box-fresh pair of shoes is not enough; we want more and more, and to our horror discover we have become Imelda Marcos. Sarah realised that her shopping fix no longer made her happy and she wanted to make some changes.

Step 1: I shop therefore I'm (temporarily) happy

Sarah made a list of all the things she had bought herself in the past few months. She gave each a score of how happy they had made her feel when she bought them. Comparing these scores, she saw that at the time of purchase she was marking everything from an expensive new handbag to a bottle of designer nail varnish with a "very happy" score. This confirmed to her that it was the act of buying something new that was creating a short-term buzz.

She then gave a score indicating how happy they made her feel now. These scores were much lower - things that had meant so much to her at the time meant almost nothing to her now. Again, this gave her concrete evidence that owning what she imagined was desirable did not make her feel good about herself or happier about her life. In fact, many of these things made her feel guilty and miserable.

Step 2: Appreciate and savour

The next step was for Sarah to re-evaluate the items that she had recently purchased and learn to appreciate them. She placed anything she didn't want in a charity bag or gave things to friends, which made her feel that at least she had done something positive with them. Of the things she wanted to keep, she allowed herself to appreciate them without feeling guilt. She deliberately took particular notice of them, reminding herself why they had appealed to her the first time she had seen them. She also worked out how long it had taken her to earn the money to pay for them, increasing her respect not only for money, but also for her hard work.

Mindful appreciation allowed her to savour the pleasure of having something new. By not taking it all for granted, she was able to prolong the high that the initial purchasing thrill had given her. When friends admired her belongings, she told them where she had bought them, how much fun it had been to buy them and how she enjoyed using them. This reminded her that these items meant more than just an expensively guilty pleasure at the checkout; they had a story to them, which made them more meaningful.

Step 3: Get off the treadmill

The less Sarah took her belongings for granted, the less she felt the urge to shop. She found herself growing fond of some favourite things and didn't want to replace them. It gave her pleasure to see her friends wearing the things she had given away and she made plans with them to try different activities, which were not based on cruising the mall. She calculated what she had spent and worked out that she could have had a holiday abroad, so she opened a savings account, increasing the amount she saved as she reduced her debts. Saving began to give her as much satisfaction as buying and this balance made her feel more secure and less in need of a novelty fix. s

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