How to Buy Happiness

The old cliché “money can’t buy happiness” may be at least half wrong. Buying a new pair of shoes won’t make you happier (I’ve tried), but buying an experience you can remember will.

Every sleek new toy and gadget will eventually break, become obsolete or worse, boring. You’ll replace it with a new wizbang that will end up in the trash or in the self storage that Americans spend $38 billion a year on. Meanwhile, your memories cost nothing and pay off in unexpected ways. Experiences may not last but they stay in our memories and research says that makes us happier than seemingly permanent possessions.

In the ‘70s, USC economics professor Richard Easterlin observed that making more money doesn’t increase happiness, creating the economic principle the Easterlin paradox. Though the theory is still debated among economists, social science studies generally agree that consumerism is unrelated to contentment. In a 1985 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professor Russell Belk found that materialistic people have lower wellbeing than non-materialistic people.

Human brains are restless, racing with frantic trains of thought that material goods can’t stop. According to a national iPhone survey, people spend 47 percent of their time thinking about something other than what they’re doing. Psychologist Matthew Killingsworth observed  that state of being isn’t a recipe for fun, writing that  “a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” It’s no wonder mindfulness—being aware and present in the moment—is a multibillion dollar industry. People want to slow their brains, they just don’t know how.

Though being present in the moment is beneficial and healthy, stopping your mind from wandering is hard. There are ways to guide your mind, however. Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has studied happiness since 2003. His extensive group psychology studies indicate that people are consistently happy while anticipating an experience. The more experiences you fill your life with, the more you can focus your mind on those and less on your friend’s cool new toy that has you jealous.

In a series of 2014 surveys, Gilovich tested levels of happiness in different situations. He reported that people were happier than usual when anticipating purchasing an experience, like concert tickets. They were not happier than usual when thinking of material future purchases like laptops.

Gilovich’s discoveries match history. He and his team compared news reports about people waiting in line for goods versus people waiting for experiences. Those waiting for goods exhibited negative behavior as extreme as rioting, while those waiting for experiences were more jolly, their behavior as extreme as singing.

Amit Kumar, Gilovich’s co-author, told The Atlantic that experiences generate close bonds with other people in a way that material goods don’t. That’s true even of bad experiences. Indeed, negative experiences can be remembered fondly while objects can’t. You can fondly remember your car breaking down on a road trip as time spent with people close to you. But you will never like your fancy new tablet more than the day you bought it.

Kumar also points out that strangers will bond over shared experiences more than shared possessions. People who have hiked the same trail or seen the same artist perform believe they have more in common than people who own the same car or smartphone. That’s because we shape our sense of identity around our experiences. You might introduce yourself as a rock climber or knitter, not an iPhone owner. When you meet another hardcore knitter, you feel a bond with them in a way you don’t with the 86 million other iPhone owners.

There’s an even happier way to spend your money than concert tickets or new knitting needles. University of British Columbia psychologist, Elizabeth Dunn, says that spending money on others is the best path to happiness. In her book “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” Dunn writes that the most rewarding spending is helping others. According to her research, donating to charity or giving a gift makes us happier than spending money on ourselves, even if we’re spending on experiences over goods.

So be selfish. Your local Planned Parenthood could probably use donations and volunteers. Do it for you.