Can an Aston Martin make you happy? Every man I know would respond in the absolute affirmative if asked that question. But new research shows that although money can buy happiness, purchasing expensive toys is just not the most effective way to achieve it. Scientists say people are much better off spending their money on experiences that can be enjoyed and remembered over a lifetime rather than purchasing items whose luster will tarnish in a short period of time.
“The new dress or the fancy car provides a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted,” said Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich in a Wall Street article about happiness. “Experiences, on the other hand, tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs. They’re often shared with other people, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity. If you’ve climbed in the Himalayas, that’s something you’ll always remember and talk about, long after all your favorite gadgets have gone to the landfill.”
The research seems right. To celebrate our anniversary this month we decided against traditional gifts and opted for a trip to New York City. Nobody likes a
Louboutin better than me, but how do sexy shoes compare with the view of Manhattan from 80 stories up in the Empire State Building?
Or drinks with a wonderful artist friend who trudged 40 blocks to help us celebrate in the charming Waverly Inn Restaurant in Greenwich Village and introduced us to her brother who writes movie reviews for the Catholic Church. Who even knew such a job even existed? Speaking of which, we saw INTERSTELLAR. Well done but epically long and a bit dull. The most amazing cinematic experience was the quiet though. The movie was completely sold out but even among hundreds of people in the theatre, not one cell phone went off and no one spoke loudly or caused any kind of interruption. Such a polite audience. In New York City. Go figure. The Mercer Kitchen featured fabulous food and an opportunity to meet with another friend who had just started working for the international broadcast, group, Al Jazeera and we heard a fresh perspective about the middle east and elsewhere. We walked miles working off all the wonderful food we had and ended up at The International Center of Photography where an exhibition called GENESIS was on. Sebastião Salgado spent 8 years taking pictures of the last most pristine places on earth to demonstrate what would be lost if the planet is not better protected. All of these experiences and people in them were far more interesting than anything I could have bought at Bergdorf’s. No disrespect to the fabulous Bergdorf’s, of course.
The Wall Street Journal also spoke with Prof. Ryan Howell who is an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University who found that most people mistakenly perceived experiences as fleeting and purchases as more permanent and thus more valuable. But after the fact most folks admitted that the opposite was true. ““What we find is that there’s this huge misforecast,” Howell told the paper. “People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value.”
Certainly, vast sums of cash can understandably provide a more satisfying and less worrisome life than someone who is cash poor but research shows that being super rich does not actually guarantee happiness. Researchers say once you reach a certain household income all bets are off. $75,000 is essentially the magic number after which the power of purchasing will not pay dividends in the emotional department like memorable experiences will.
“The bottom line,” says Gilovich,: “When you don’t have much money, a little extra can go a long way, because you have more essential needs to fulfill. As you accumulate more wealth, however, it becomes more difficult to keep “buying” more happiness.”
Maybe you outgrow conspicuous consumption, ala Kim Kardashian. Or maybe your values and interests simply become richer and more varied the older you get. Or, perhaps, there are different things for different seasons.
“Use money to buy yourself better time,” says Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, in the same WSJ story. An associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Dunn suggests, “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.”
Although I do subscribe to this philosophy that experiences are better than purchases, and would recommend it to others, old habits die hard. And a little material madness is thrilling on Christmas morning. So, hint, hint, Santa, my list is almost ready. And you’ll be happy to know that this year it is a lot shorter than usual.