Material stuff can make you happy


Experiences vs. money — What makes us happier?

The current line of thinking, which quite a few studies support is that experiences make us happier than “stuff.” Here's an example from

If you're trying to buy happiness, you'd be better off putting your money toward a tropical island getaway than a new computer…The results [of a Cornell University study] show that people's satisfaction with their life-experience purchases — anything from seeing a movie to going on a vacation — tend to start out high and go up over time…The findings, based on eight separate studies, agree with previous research showing that experience-related buys lead to more happiness for the consumer.

I get it. I can relate to it quite a bit too. My memories of backpacking through the west Texas desert with my parents just get better when we retell the stories. And while memories from my two trips to NYC to visit a friend have always made me happy, they became truly priceless when that friend passed away last year. Those experiences bring me more happiness than any material purchase I've ever made.

But the thing is, what exactly are we supposed to do with study results that say we'd be happier with a beach vacation than a new computer?

Study Findings Versus Real Life

Most of us buy material stuff all the time, certainly more often than a kayaking trip or a massage. (Unless you get daily massages, in which case my rhomboid muscles hate you.) For most people, it's not practical to spend the majority of their money on experiences.

Also, when we've covered these “buying happiness”-type studies here at GRS, several readers always point out that they own lots of stuff that makes them happy. And I can relate to that sentiment too. Although I try to lean toward the clutter-free side of what I call the Minimalist-Hoarder Spectrum, I'm sitting here surrounded by Stuff. I'm drinking coffee out of my pretty white coffee mug. Across from me is my beloved Nikon. I'm sitting in this house, the biggest purchase of my life.

Related >> When Less is More

And these purchases make me happy on a daily basis. I freaking love my little house, and we're still renovating it! There's literally scaffolding in my living room right now. Don't care; still love it. And I certainly wouldn't trade in my MacBook for a tropical island getaway (in part because I need it to afford tropical island getaways in the first place).

Related >> The Small-House Experiment

So how do you explain that, science?

Stuff and Experiences are Not Mutually Exclusive

The interesting thing about the Cornell study is that, unlike some of the previous studies, it dove into the reasons experiences make us happier than stuff. Here are two reasons why experiential purchases lead to greater happiness:

  • People find it easier to make a decision to purchase an experience

  • We tend not to second-guess experiential purchases

But what about stuff that enables an experience?

For instance, my kitchen is full of material purchases — the countertops, the oven, the big farmhouse sink. And those things make it especially nice to cook in my kitchen every day. I finally have a big enough kitchen to invite people into it while I'm cooking, which makes family dinners a lot more fun. Another example is my aunt and uncle, who have a computer with a webcam so that they can Skype with their grandkids who live in Australia.

And sometimes material purchases aren't just nice-to-haves, they're pretty much necessities. “I bought Winning brand headgear, which is $300,” says Alexis Asher, a retired Golden Gloves State Champion. “It's very expensive for headgear, but it's the best protection and it makes me happy.”

And those kinds of purchases are pretty easy to make. It's a no-brainer for my aunt and uncle to have a computer and webcam setup, and they don't second-guess their decision to buy that in the least. And, obviously, Asher's purchase was an easy decision too. “I have no regrets because it keeps me safe,” she says. “The only time I've ever been knocked out was years ago when I sparred without headgear on.”

Related >> Why We Buy: The science of shopping

Where Experiences and Stuff Differ Most

Still, stuff that enables an experience has potential pitfalls.

One pitfall, according to the Cornell study, is that stuff can decrease happiness because things are easier to compare than experiences. So if you buy a laptop and then your neighbor gets a nicer model, it's much easier (and therefore more likely) that you'll compare her nice big screen with your smaller one and feel a little less happy with your purchase. Whereas, if you both took two different trips to Mexico, it's a little harder to compare the two. And comparison is the thief of joy, as the saying goes.

Another pitfall is that with stuff, we tend to do much more comparison shopping and deliberating and, when we pull the trigger and buy something, it's frustrating to later learn that a better option exists or that we could have gotten a better price. According to the study, we're less likely to feel that buyer's remorse with experiential purchases.

So to use our previous example, even if we buy a computer in order to Skype with family members, we're still more likely to ruminate on which computer to buy, to worry about getting the best deal, to feel regret if we find out that it went on sale the week after we bought it. And those things lower your happiness level, according to the researchers.

I've had a lot of personal experience with it as well. Usually, I simply tell myself that over-researching and second-guessing one stupid purchase is a total waste of my time and to get over it. There are bigger problems in the world, April. But that's probably not helpful advice to give, unless you happen to like beating yourself up about beating yourself up.

So how can we thwart our tendency to compare and ruminate?

Mitigating the Risk for Unhappiness

My feeling is that most people don't over-think the little purchases. It's the bigger ones that have the real potential to make us unhappy.

So for larger purchases that you're going back-and-forth over, a more practical approach than mentally beating yourself up is to start by making a list of your needs and requirements. What exactly do you need this computer to be able to do? Write it down.

Then, write down each model you're considering, and see how it compares to your list of needs. Does it meet your original list of requirements? Are there any drawbacks?

Finally, make the purchase, and hang on to the list. Stick it in a drawer or save it on your computer. That way, if you start second-guessing yourself or feel buyer's remorse, you can always take a look at your notes and know that, although your neighbor's computer is nice, you got what you needed and at the right price for your budget.

Also, if you often find yourself regretting purchases, buy from a place with a generous return policy whenever possible. And don't forget that a lot of retailers honor a new markdown on an item you bought last week. It never hurts to ask.

As with most of personal finance, “buying happiness” isn't so black and white. It's not as simple as Experience good, stuff bad. It's more like, over-thinking, second-guessing, and comparison bad.

And now that my language skills have degenerated into speaking caveman, I'll open it up to you. What's a materialistic purchase that makes you happy? What should someone do when they start to over-think and second-guess a purchase?

More about...Psychology

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