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.