On happiness: If you’re going to spend, buy experiences, not stuff

If you’re going to treat yourself to a little present, your happiness quotient is more likely to go up if you drop your money on a nice trip instead of a shiny new computer. Research on the “buy experiences” vs. “buy stuff” debate clearly sides with the former. Earlier this year, Rachael Rettner of LiveScience.com summarized a cluster of relevant studies (link here):

The results show that people’s satisfaction with their life-experience purchases — anything from seeing a movie to going on a vacation — tends to start out high and go up over time. On the other hand, although they might be initially happy with that shiny new iPhone or the latest in fashion, their satisfaction with these items wanes with time.

The findings, based on eight separate studies, agree with previous research showing that experience-related buys lead to more happiness for the consumer.

Of course, there are times when the lines cross. If that new computer enables you to create a homemade movie or record music that you share with others, then stuff has enabled experience. But anyone who has engaged in “retail therapy” knows what I’m talking about — buying items that provide a (very) short-lived boost, to be followed by a long stay on the shelf or in the closet.

I worked for this?!

Unless you have an independent source of income, it’s likely that whatever you buy will be paid for with your toil. If you buy something that provides instant gratification but very soon adds to your clutter (full disclosure: books and DVDs are my weaknesses), in a way you’re working for free when it comes to paying for an item you really don’t use.

As we evaluate the long-term effects of the Great Recession, some are using the economic mess to evaluate our buying and spending habits. The experiences vs. stuff debate should be part of this deeper and broader examination. Especially when we’re dealing with flattened paychecks and tottering 401k plans, we should pay extra attention to how we can maximize our happiness when we spend our money.

At the risk of sounding preachy

Another consideration, especially at holiday time: If you have some discretionary cash, find a creative way to help someone in need. A friend, a family member, maybe even a relative stranger. It could be through an anonymous gift. I confess I have no idea how the happiness research measures that compared to buying a trip or a new flat-screen TV, but for the recipient it could be a huge lift.

3 responses

  1. One year my sister and I took two of the little tags that are often found on Christmas trees out and about, furnished by charities, in the hope that you will pick one of these tags, and buy a gift for the named child.

    Our first spurt of joy was in reading the wish list of each child! Children still dream Big! It brought back to mind all how we, as children had looked forward to the Sears and Penneys Christmas Catalogue arrival. We each eagerly took turns marking up the pages with the things we wanted.

    Next came the letters to Santa that we wrote. Oh, how the list went on and on! And of course, always signed with a reminder to the Jolly Old Soul, how very, very good we had been all year.

    So, off we went, shopping for the little ones named on the tags we had chosen. It was a learning experience, because I was not accustomed to having to abide by the warning on the package “not for a child of a certain age”. I never realized it would be so difficult to buy a dump truck and a fire truck for someone three years old!

    Our shopping carts filled with possibilities. Then, too, we would find great bargains, but they did not fit the description of the child on our tag. “Oh! Well!” we exclaimed. We will just give these, too; surely there would be more children in need and the Charity Organization could match up the extra purchases with the appropriate children.

    Each day we returned home with more gifts. We loved taking them out of the shopping bags, oohing & awing over them; imagining how happy each item would make some young person. In fact, we enjoyed this behavior so much, that we almost did not make the deadline for contributing the gifts.

    The lesson we learned was one of old. Giving a gift keeps on giving long after the gift has been given. We enjoyed that Christmas immensely, though a gift between sisters was never exchanged. Years later, we still love telling and retelling the experience, with laughter and joy and great happiness. It was a grand Christmas blessing for us!

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