7 Tips for Making Happy Decisions about How to Spend Your Time, Energy, and Money.

We all have to make decisions about how to spend our time, energy, and money. Because of my happiness project, I now explicitly ask myself, “Will this decision make me happier?” I’m determined to get the most happiness bang for the buck.

Here are some questions I consider:

1. Is this decision likely to strengthen my relationships with other people? Strong relationships with other people are a key—the key—to happiness, so decisions that help me build or strengthen ties are likely to boost my happiness. Yes, it’s a hassle and an expense to go to my college reunion, but it’s likely to have a big happiness pay-off.

2. Will this decision provide me with novelty and challenge? Novelty and challenge make me happier—but they also make me feel insecure, intimidated, frustrated, and stupid. To get past that hurdle, I remind myself that in the end, I usually get a big shot of happiness. When I considered adding video to my blog, I reminded myself that the process of mastering the process would likely make me happier. And it has.

3. What is the opportunity cost of this decision? (“Opportunity cost” describes that fact that doing one thing means foregoing alternatives.) Energy, time, and money are limited. Even if a decision would bring happiness, if it means that I have to give up the opportunity to do many other happiness-boosting activities, it may not be worth it. I could dedicate many hours to learning about classical music, and in the end, I might enjoy classical music more, but that activity would crowd out too many other things that I want to do more.

4. Does this decision help me obey my personal commandment to Be Gretchen? I want to shape my life to reflect my temperament, interests, and values. I ask myself: Am I making this decision to “Be Gretchen,” or because I want to impress other people, pretend that I’m different from the person I actually am, or deny a truth about myself?

5. When I consider a particular course of action, do I feel energized or drained?

6. How happy are the people who have made that particular decision? In Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that the most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy, and assume that you’ll feel the same way. Going on a family trip to Disneyworld. Getting a hamster. Learning to use Instagram. Working as a paralegal. Volunteering. In evaluating the likely consequences of a decision, other people’s experiences of happiness—or lack thereof—can be very instructive for me.

7. I remind myself to “Choose the bigger life.” People make different decisions about what the “bigger life” would be, but when I ask myself that question, it always helps me see the right answer, for myself.

This list might help answer questions such as:

  • Should I join Facebook?
  • Should I buy a tent?
  • Should I throw a Labor Day party?
  • Should I buy a new kitchen table?
  • Should I sign up for Spanish lessons?

There’s no right answer or wrong answer — only the right answer for me.

How about you? Have you developed questions for yourself, or other strategies, to help make wise decisions?


  • Gretchen, I love #3! I am an economics teacher and didn’t think I would find another happiness site other than mine that would use such a wonderful concept as opportunity cost.

    It is so true that every decision we make comes at a sacrifice. It is both a decision to use resources one way and a decision to lose the opportunity to use those same resources in any number of other ways. It is a great way to evaluate the cost in lost opportunities of any decision we face. When we watch an hour of TV, for example, we can’t use that same hour to build a relationship or work out or write a post on 7 Tips for Making Happy Decisions!

    Thank you for another great tip on living with more happiness!

  • Olivia

    I love those questions, and yet so simple!  

    I took your advice from yesterday and tried to let my mind “wonder” in the car today, but I found myself getting really sleepy, haha.  I decided listening to music in the car does make me happy, basically because that’s my ME time.  I’m a stay at home mom, and cranking up the music like that and having that time just to sing really makes me happy and feel free 🙂

    “I am still learning”

  • I love #7–“Choosing the Bigger Life”. Would have different meaning for everybody but deep meaning, at that.

    So easy to get stuck in our own little worlds, without pushing and stretching and exploring and taking risks…I’m totally adopting that filter question (Will this help me choose the Bigger Life?) to help me make decisions.

  • Mainejunklist

    Gretchen, Lovely post! Can you expore the concept of  number 7 ~ ” living a bigger life” in one of your future  posts? You have hit on this idea a few times (esp. in your book) in the conext that you sometimes opt for the simple , most efficent way of doing things…as do I. How can we “live a big life” even tho’ we love the simple, efficent, most practical route? Sometimes I think my quest for  “efficency” robs me of  potential happiness.  Your thoughts and tips  on how to live a big life appreciated.

  • Regarding #6, I agree with this to a point. Asking other people about what makes them happy works only if people are truthful. But in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, people may say that something makes them happy but they are really just changing their thoughts and beliefs to handle the incongruity between what they thought would make them happy and what actually does. I believe Gilbert talks about this concept in his book (which is a great read, by the way).

    Also, it’s been my experience that sometimes people paint a rosy picture of things just to be diplomatic and socially appropriate rather than appear to be negative, even if it’s the truth. For example, a new mother might say, “Having a baby is wonderful and such a joy,” rather than say, “Having a baby is wonderful and such a joy, but it’s so difficult and stressful and leaves no time for anything else.” (The second is probably closer to the truth.)

  • Puck

    Thanks for another terrific and thoughtful column. I visit your blog every morning and doing so is leading me daily to say “Yes” to points 1 through 7.

  • Kelly

    Per #2…trying novel and challenging things also stimulates the brain and supports brain health. A win-win.

  • Armychic73

    OMG! Gretchen! Thank you so much for this post, today of all days! I have been feeling extremely overwhelmed and completely burnout on college (I am a full-time graduate student and work full-time). While I love learning and genuinely enjoy homework and writing research papers (I know, sick, huh?), this term has really been especially tough for me to focus and concentrate and it has not made me happy, as with all my other classes that I have enjoyed.  It’s not so much the subject matter  I dread as it is having to do my assignments now for some reason. It has gotten to the point where am I seriously considering just not turning in a research paper for this current class (it is the final assignment for the course and due next week). My husband was shocked when I first told him I really wanted to blow off the research paper and take a “C” if I had to (I have straight A’s and a 4.0, not that that counts for anything at the graduate level) because I usually read the syllabus on the first day of class and start the research paper right away (just so you know, I am the Hermione in all my classes) So I have been having an agonizing debate about whether or not to take a semester off to “recharge.”  My fear is that I will like the time off  so much that I will not be motivated to go back the following semester (I have three classes left to graduate but I have been going to school non-stop since 2007 when I started working on my bachelor’s degree).  Part of me is saying, “Just suck it up and keep going, you love school remember?”  And another part of me is saying, “The fact that you are actually considering blowing off a research paper and that you have been miserable all semester is a clear sign that you are so utterly burnt out!  That is SO not like you!” 
    So thank you for this list.  It’s like an aide to help me consider different aspects on which to weigh my decision instead of just getting all emotional about it and worse, beating myself up over it.  THANK YOU!

  • This is such a great list…thank you! 🙂

  • maryl

    Love the post, love the interview, ditto on the Philosophy Epistle!   

    I find it helpful to think of what Calvin Trillin’s father used to say (from Messages from My Father): “You might as well be a mensch.”  Meaning, make the generous, upstanding, classy choice.

  • I always ask myself, “Will I be happy with this decission in 3 days, a week from now, or a month from now.” The answer invariably points me in the right direction.

  • Tcdbjd

    Reminds me of this great quote
    One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it’s expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt________________________________________

  • what is happiness

    it is very beautiful and  nice  site.This is a great article to remind all bloggers .this is a very great and nice  article.  what is happiness  Asking someone to define happiness is like asking him/her to define success. Happiness can mean a lot of different things, and the definition may vary from one person to another. To one person,  happiness may mean having lots of possessions. To another person, happiness may mean being very successful in his or her chosen career. To still another person, happiness may simply mean having a healthy and happy family. Ask yourself: What is happiness for you?


  • Katherine Dale

    I have started my own “happiness project” for 2012. After: changing my job, possibly career (transformation in progress); reading your book; and attending a Beckoning of lovely event at #HKSMWK I found my project.

    Although it is early in the process, I have started. I am making handmade gifts and giving them away. It started with Valentine gifts of small red felt hearts with the words “you are loved” on the back. I have given muffins, cake, a phone pouch, a baby book and tshirts. It doesn’t seem like enough, yet. You can see on my page: youareloved.ca.

    Thank you, drkatherinedale

  • Dryouareloved

    When I make a decision I listen to how my body responds when I ask the question, when I have/do this I will feel ___ ? A gut-response will come from within saying if it is a good decision for me. I also give myself permission to change my mind, even after I have made a choice. Part of making decisions is changing your mind when it really feels wrong.