Can money buy happiness?

It’s an age-old question, one that often doesn’t get a straight or satisfying answer. Some people contend that material purchases are bad and can’t bring us happiness, while others enjoy purchasing material goods and say it actually makes them feel good and more joyful—at least for a while.

These two opposing views have prompted psychologists to investigate the truth about money and its impact on our happiness. The results, at first glance, seem somewhat obvious: People with higher incomes and thus more buying power are, broadly speaking, happier than those who struggle to get by.

But, dig a little deeper into the findings, and they get a lot more interesting and surprising too.

Material purchases can make you frequently happy

In a recent study from the University of British Columbia, researchers wanted to know how people felt right after purchasing something, like a new sweater or tablet computer. This study was interesting because there have been fewer studies to examine how people actually feel while consuming material purchases as opposed to consuming life experiences like a big vacation overseas.

Over the past decade or so there have been an abundance of mainstream studies that conclude people derive more happiness from buying life experiences than buying material objects. That explains why so many people today maintain that buying material goods can’t make you happy. And yet more people still deny themselves life experiences and prioritize buying material goods. What gives?

Aaron Weidman and Elizabeth Dunn, researchers from the University of British Columbia who led the aforementioned study, found that material purchases provide more frequent happiness over time, whereas experiential purchases provide more intense happiness on individual occasions.

Weidman and Dunn assessed the real-time, momentary happiness people got from material and experiential purchases, up to five times per day for two weeks. Material purchases consisted of items like skateboards, portable speakers and coffee makers, while experiential purchases were things like spa gift cards, a weekend ski trip and tickets to a hockey game.

After carefully analyzing the data that people provided when they were asked to record their thoughts in the weeks following their purchases, as well as one month after their purchases, the researchers discovered that material and experiential purchases bring happiness in two distinct flavors:

  • Firstly, material purchases bring repeated doses of happiness over time in the weeks after they are bought, whereas experiential purchases offer a more intense but fleeting dose of happiness.
  • Secondly, when people looked back on their purchases 6 weeks after Christmas, they felt more satisfaction about experiential purchases.

The study authors concluded that the decision of whether to buy a material thing or a life experience may boil down to what kind of happiness one desires. “Consider a holiday shopper deciding between tickets to a concert or a new couch in the living room” said Mr. Weidman. “The concert will provide an intense thrill for one spectacular night, but then it will end, and will no longer provide momentary happiness, aside from being a happy memory.”

“In contrast,” Weidman continued, “the new couch will never provide a thrilling moment to match the concert, but will keep the owner snug and comfortable each day throughout the winter months.”

But, there is a caveat against material purchases

Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich seems to agree with Mr. Weidman and Ms. Dunn’s research findings, and offers this explanation:

“People often make a rational calculation: I have a limited amount of money, and I can either go there, or I can have this. If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it.”

But, Gilovich goes further and reminds us that while this calculation is factually true, it is not psychologically true. “We adapt to our material goods,” he says. The new couch, new dress or fancy car provides a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.

Experiences, on the other hand, Gilovich says , tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs. They are 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, Gilovich offers an example, that’s something you’ll always remember and talk about, long after all your favorite gadgets have gone to the landfill.

So, where does all this leave us—ordinary people who just want to be happy?

Should you purchase life experiences or material items? I suppose the more accurate answer is… it depends.

It depends on your situation, and what type of happiness you are looking to have. Are you looking for more lasting happiness, more frequent happiness (as some sort of respite, maybe) or both? Ultimately, though, your money will be better spent if you take the time to appreciate the objects of your spending (the gadget, vacation, or smiles of the people you have helped).

In other words, wring as many rewarding and stretching experiences from your purchases as possible, and you may just be able to buy happiness. As the famous Lexus advertisement pronounced, “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right.”

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