It Turns Out You Can Buy Happiness

A couple weeks ago, Alastair Humphreys told me about the Explore feature on Kayak.com that allows you to enter the amount of money you’d liked to spend, and shows you where you can fly in the world for that amount.

This is of particular interest to Alastair, because this year he’s encouraging everyone to save £20 (or $20, or €20) every week for the entire year, and then take that money and plan an adventure with it—for $1,000. He said at the time of our conversation, a little over halfway through the year, he would be able to get from his home in the U.K. to New Zealand, according to Kayak.

I said, “They should show you things you could buy other than that that won’t make you as happy right next to it, like you could get a bigger TV.”

A few weeks later, Alastair challenged readers of his blog to verbalize this exact thing: Would you rather go on a $1000 adventure, or buy a $1000 couch?

It’s a direct question. Is it an easy answer? Although you’re going to get a lot of use out of a couch, I’d personally bet if you spent that money on a trip instead, you’d probably have better memories. I mean, when we’re writing out our “here’s what we did this past year” holiday cards to everyone, I don’t know how many of us include a photo of a piece of furniture we bought.

We always say, “You can’t buy happiness,” and then we keep trying to do it, getting the next flashy new car so we can sit in traffic in it, or the incrementally better best new smartphone, or the bike costing thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours of research and development that we think feels lighter and faster than the one that company made two years ago.

But it turns out you actually can buy happiness, in a way: A study published in August in the journal Psychological Science analyzed data on how more than 2,000 people felt about buying experiences vs. products. They found that spending money on experiences, not material goods, is more rewarding.

A news release from the Association for Psychological Science said about the study results:

  • “To get the most enjoyment out of our dollar, science tells us to focus our discretionary spending on trips over TVs, on concerts over clothing, since experiences tend to bring more enduring pleasure than do material goods.”
  • “[The researchers] found that people were happier at times when they were thinking about a future experiential purchase than they were at times when they weren’t thinking about a purchase at all. There was no relative increase or decrease in happiness when they were thinking about a future material purchase.”
  • “Students reported positive feelings about both types of purchases, but those who were assigned to think about their impending experiential purchases, such as ski passes or concert tickets, reported their anticipation as more pleasant than those who were assigned to think about impending material purchases, such as clothing and laptops.”

Or, as Naavi Singh wrote in an NPR story about the study, “”People queue up for days in order to get their hands on the latest iPhone, or what feels like eons for a table at that hip new brunch place. You may be better off spending time and money on the latter.”

Of course, you don’t need to spend money at all to be happy—but let’s be honest: you’re going to spend some money on something that you think will be fun this year.

Just FYI, If you have $700 burning a hole in your pocket right now, you can buy:

  • The top-of-the-line Roomba vacuum cleaning robot
  • A 64GB iPad Air
  • This jacket from Anthropologie
  • A flight from Denver to Honolulu
  • A flight from Denver to the Cayman Islands
  • A flight from L.A. to Rome
  • A flight from Chicago to Shanghai
  • Enough gasoline to drive to Yosemite National Park from almost anywhere in the Lower 48
  • A guided climb of Mt. Hood

A few of the items on that list will last longer than a couple years.

-Brendan

[photo courtesy Hilary Oliver]

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12 comments

  1. If there’s one thing I’m really good at, it’s finding reasons to not work on my house. I’ve been “remodeling” the kitchen for five years. The kitchen doesn’t look much different, but I have a shit ton of memories that I wouldn’t trade for a beautiful marble countertop.

  2. A lot of the clothes I wear on a daily basis are the same ones that I wore in high school, over ten years ago. People wonder how I have the money to do cool things. I tell them to stop buying stuff that you really don’t need.

    Awesome post, Brendan! Money CAN buy happiness when its spent in the right way. I totally agree.

  3. If I can sell my $1000 couch for $300 on craigslist and that $300 will get me a one way ticket to paradise, the rational-me should sell the couch. But the irrational-me can’t stand losing $700 on the couch even though he knows damn-well that he wouldn’t pay $300 to buy it today because he would use that $300 to buy a one way ticket to paradise.

    Would someone please hire a hit-man to kill irrational-me?

  4. Couldn’t agree more. I think if I owned that new couch, new clothes or anything materialistic I’d be a much worse off person than I am today. Adventures await around every corner and you’ll relive those memories for years to come. Cleaning the house, buying a new couch – you can do those anytime. And who needs a new couch if you’re not there to use it?

  5. This all sounds great, but don’t make any illusions that booking all these flights in order to go on adventures is nothing more than straight-up consumerism, just as much as buying a couch is. If you want to really buy happiness, put your money into savings and use it to retire earlier, spend more time with friends and family, to help people in need, and to turn your attention to some of the pressing problems facing the world. I can tell you I’ll be a lot more happy when I’m old knowing I helped make my community more resilient to rising energy prices than looking back on some hike I did in New Zealand that benefited absolutely nobody except myself.

  6. My couch was free, my house was cheep, I still wear clothes from high school (over 10 years ago) but we have a TON of climbing gear. Rational right?

  7. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve bought, be it a trinket or a car/house/doo-dad, that would be more memorable or impactful (is that a word?) than the trips I’ve taken the mountains, the beach or overseas. Not one.

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Article by: brendan