How to Buy Happiness

girl on a swing

Wouldn’t it be great if we could buy happiness? If making more money led to more happiness, it would make life so much more straightforward and satisfying.

Because right now, so many of us go out there trying to make more money and then we’re disappointed when we don’t get that expected uptick in happiness. Sometimes we feel worse!

That’s why I’m fascinated with all the research that digs into happiness and tries to shed some light on what works and what doesn’t in the acquisition of happiness. After all, isn’t more happiness what everyone’s after?

This recent Wall Street Journal article, Can Money Buy You Happiness?, has some interesting points to make.

It’s not How Much You Have, but How You Spend It

Black Friday is coming up, but even if you’ve never woken up at 5am skipped Thanksgiving dinner to go shopping, you’ve felt the excitement around buying something new. Whether it’s a new TV, a new phone, a new dress, or whatever it is—the simple act of buying something can be a real thrill.

The anticipation, the unboxing, the first few times you use it. It’s a rush.

But the research tells a different story.

Spending on experiences tends to bring more happiness than spending on things. And intuitively it makes sense. Buying a trip brings many more thrills than buying the new iPhone, and here’s why: when you book a trip you get excited as you plan it and think about it. Then you have this date in the future that you’re looking forward to. Regardless of what else is going on in your life, you have that day etched in your brain that you’ll be leaving work, leaving your everyday routine, and escaping.

Maybe you’ll go to the beach. Maybe to a different country. Or to a place that speaks a different language.

That excitement can get you through some major doldrums.

Then comes the actual trip. You go and you have all these new experiences that you’ve never had before. You’re relaxed. You don’t have to do anything. You can do whatever you want. Maybe you get to spend time with friends and family that you don’t get to see as much as you’d like.

It’s an escape and a thrill and it’s fun.

And then you get to relive that experience for the rest of your life.

Think about that last one for a second: it’s the perfect investment. You spend some money and in exchange you get a thrill while you plan to go. You get a steady drip of anticipation leading up to it, and then you get to actually go and experience it. And then you get to relive it in your memory or your photo album anytime you want until the day you die.

But instead of looking at trips that way, most of us see the high pricetag (much more than a new phone, for example) and focus on the fact that once we come back the trip is gone forever.

The phone, on the other hand, will still be something you can touch and hold and have in your hand for a couple of years months.

The data says otherwise: we adjust to the things we buy. To the money we have. So no matter what you buy and how excited you are about it, the odds are that on your way home from the store you’re already “used to” having it, and the thrill wears off pretty quick.

The research also says that giving money away is a pretty sure way of buying happiness. Sounds counterintuitive to say that parting with your earnings would net you something back, but it’s true. And if you’ve ever given a toy to a child in need or helped feed the homeless—you know what I’m talking about.

It’s a different kind of happiness—you feel selfless and you feel kind and good and that buzz lasts for a long time.

On Buying Time

This one is a great way to put these kinds of studies into a real-world perspective. What’s the most rare thing in the world? Time. You can’t stop it. You can’t guarantee yourself more of it. And once it’s gone, it doesn’t matter how much money you have—it’s over.

But it turns out you can buy time.

From the article:

“Use money to buy yourself better time,” says Prof. Dunn. “Don’t buy a slightly fancier car so that you have heated seats during your two-hour commute. Buy a place close to work, so that you can use that final hour of daylight to kick a ball around in the park with your kids.”

Another way to buy yourself time, Prof. Dunn says, is by outsourcing tasks you dislike. Whereas hiring personal assistants used to be the preserve of the wealthy, it’s now easier and more affordable to hire freelancers and virtual assistants online to help you with either regular administration or just individual tasks.

There’s a couple of things to focus on here:

  1. If you hate your commute, you’re in trouble. Because you have to do it twice a day, five days a week, and there’s nothing you can do about it. To me, my worst-case scenario is having to get in the car and sit in traffic for an hour each way. That is just horrible, I don’t care how much money you’re offering me. It better be enough that I can get a huge house and a maid and a gourmet chef and an infinite amount of audio books so that when I finally get home I can just sit down with my family and enjoy a world-class meal without having to cook it, prepare it, or clean up after it. I don’t mind being far away, I’ll sit and read or listen to a podcast—but sitting in traffic while I’m behind the wheel is a living hell.
  2. Pay money to have someone else do stuff that take up your time. I don’t particularly enjoy cleaning the house. Or taking the car in to get serviced. Or paying the bills. So I try to avoid it at all costs. I automate my bills. I’d like to automate my house cleaning, but that hasn’t happened (yet). It’s hard for me to make that deal of money for time when I could just do it myself. And that’s the point: you can do it ALL yourself. But what would I rather do? Clean the house for a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon or go to the movies with my family and then get some ice cream on the way home? Which one will make me happier? Chocolate sprinkles, please.

We suck at predicting

The last thing I want to touch on is this: we are notoriously awful at predicting what will bring us happiness vs. what will fade away, leaving us feeling empty and disappointed.

That’s one of the great things about happiness research—it made me realize that we have to doubt our instincts when it comes to this stuff. Because for whatever reason, our dumb ape brains think that everything can be fixed if we just take out our wallets and buy a bunch of crap.

Not sure why that is, but we’ve all been there. Something bad happens to us or we’re feeling down or whatever and spending just comes naturally. Fight that feeling! It’s going to betray you! You’re dumb and don’t know what you want!

You’ll probably feel better giving that money away than buying a new stereo! Save up for a trip with your family!

But alas, we’re apes and we do stupid things. The important thing is to understand how we’re wired and try to get as much happiness as we can.

Good luck out there—there’s plenty of happiness for everyone.

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