A new study says: yes, sometimes money can buy happiness, depending on how you spend it.
The topic seems quite timely, because what with the economy in such dire straits, many of us are worried about what we're spending our money on. We naturally want to get the most bang for our buck.
So let's say someone handed you a few thousand dollars you weren't expecting. (Hooray!) According to this latest study, what do you think the wisest investment of this money would be for your personal happiness?
a. Get your car fixed so that you're not driving around on bald tires with an engine that stalls out at unpredictable moments, thus increasing the chances you'll make it to work alive every morning;
b. Replace the upstairs toilet with one that doesn't spontaneously flush every half an hour, and finally do something about that black mold some annoying plumber told you was probably "toxic";
c. Buy yourself a Rolex;
d. Take some friends on a trip to an exotic island to go snorkeling.
Clearly you'll be much happier if you...
(d) Take everyone snorkeling, of course!
This is why I tend to hate "happiness" studies.
True, the study didn't actually ask this exact question. But it does irritate me that researchers aren't very good at measuring the peaceful, stable, boring kinds of happiness--like the kind you get knowing that the bills are paid and there is food in the refrigerator.
Anyway, in this study, researchers found that "experiential" purchases such as "a meal out or theater tickets," led to "increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs." They concluded that "buying life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness."
I actually agree that this is mostly true. (More on that in a moment). And other research has said experiences beat possessions too. But I still have to gripe about the study because griping makes me happy! Take that, happiness researchers.
Anyway, participants were asked "to write reflections and answer questions" about what they'd bought recently. Since "participants indicated that experiential purchases represented money better spent and greater happiness" the researchers concluded this must be true.
I'm sorry nice researchers, but I think the methodology of the study screws with the results. Would you be willing to rhapsodize in a little essay about your new iPod, not to mention that nifty low-flow toilet, the same way you might a trip to the symphony? You're going to sound much cooler (and have more to say) about a recent "experience" than a "thing." Does it really mean you will get more happiness out of the fleeting experience than the "thing" in the long run? (Although personally, I could write a 5,000 word essay on why I still love the garlic press I got for a Christmas present five years ago, but then I'm a little odd).
In Defense of Possessions:
Here's my main objection to the research: I think "possessions" vs "experiences" is a false dichotomy. Because something like a bicycle, or a great book, or a new plant to put in the garden, or a bowling ball may technically be an object, but it also can create or transform an experience and provide a lot of happiness.
I think the real debate should be about things we buy for status, versus things we buy for our own comfort or pleasure or adventure. An "experiential" dinner eaten at a Trendy Restaurant is, in my mind, a lousy bargain if you only went because it seemed like a sophisticated thing to do. But a great book or a new kitchen gadget or a comfy pair of running shoes can be a great happiness bargain, if using them gives you pleasure.
The relationship of money to happiness is a fascinating topic, isn't it? Because we all have opinions about money, and about happiness. And we're all pretty sure we're spending our money the right way, on the best things.
Of course the research pretty consistently says that we're clueless. Money doesn't buy us nearly the happiness we think it will; and we tend to spend it on dumb things.
It does help to get your basic needs met. But according to an interesting article on money and happiness from a couple of years ago, "going from earning less than $20,000 a year to making more than $50,000 makes you twice as likely to be happy, yet the payoff for then surpassing $90,000 is slight."
Do you ever marvel at people who spend a fortune on luxury automobiles and vastly oversized homes, then find themselves working insane hours at jobs they hate in order to pay for them? (Sometimes there's even a perverse kind of happiness in noting how silly other people are about their choices).
All kinds of things make me happy; some of them (like massages, good restaurants, or travel to foreign countries) are expensive. But while it may be a bit of a cliche that "the best things in life are free," sometimes it's true. Or at least they're pretty cheap. Other favorites: a cup of good coffee in the morning; a peaceful stroll along a beach or through the woods; music so beautiful it makes you sigh; a laughter-filled evening with best friends; or a blissful weekday evening hunkered down with a beloved spouse, a pizza, a purring cat and a favorite tv show.
So do you folks think money can buy happiness? What do you think are good happiness "bargains?" Any examples you've seen of really lame ways to try to buy happiness?