2009.02.18 Money can buy happiness if you love experiences

Written by David Green.


There’s nothing like being vindicated even if you’re vindicated by your own self. I speak of my guilt in planning trips on the cusp of the next Great Depression, even though I truly am happy to have spent the money on the experiences. There is always that twinge of guilt, however, that hangs like a little black cloud ready to rain on my parade of happiness.

But a short segment on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday made me think, Begone guilt! Regret no more!

I was dashing between schools Friday when I heard snatches of the Research News portion of the program. Host Ira Flatow was interviewing a psychologist about his study which concluded people felt happier when they spent their money on experiences rather than things. I’m a big spender of kooky things, but still, I thought, “My sentiments exactly.”

Ira asked if that could be extrapolated to buying gifts, such as for Valentine’s Day, and the psychologist, Ryan Howell from San Francisco State University, said yes.

So, instead of buying that red teddy bear with an “I Love You” balloon attached, you should have bought your sweetheart tickets to a concert. Instead of buying jewelry, you should have booked a reservation at a new and different  restaurant.

Luckily, David happened to listen to the same program so when I suggested we eat out Friday night, twisting his arm wasn’t too hard.

David is rarely eager to embark on any endeavor that requires spending money. I have long since decided not to let that stop me. Whether it’s buying Zingerman’s brownies or spending 10 bucks for the dinky little raft ride at Cumberland Falls State Park, I am all about the experience.

He’s happy not spending the money and I’m happy having the experience. I suspect he’s a little less happy about me spending the money, but the threat of a wedgie usually ends the under-his-breath mumbling and grumbling.

I listened to the podcast of the show later and was bolstered by further conclusions of the study which found that people who spent their money on experiences had an increased sense of vitality and vigor. They also had a sense of being connected with their social world and engaged in less social comparison.

For example, you might buy a pair of shoes and think they’re nice until you see your friend’s shoes and think they’re nicer. When you spend money on experiences, you’re less likely to engage in that sort of activity and less likely to have buyer’s remorse. You’re, as the title of the show says, Buying Into Life Instead Of Things.

Of course, the study only included 154 participants, hardly enough to be conclusive. But, you know how it is, take your vindication and validation where you can get it.

And when you hear about a study that only confirms what you’ve been living, it’s easy to think of lots of examples of how happy the experiences made you.

Snorkeling in the Bahamas tops my list. What a time that was. Swimming in the pool built into the side of a cliff at Arcosanti in Arizona—I can still transport myself to that budding experimental town where Paolo Soleri blends architecture with ecology.

A day trip on a boat from Homer, Alaska, to see a rookery and explore an island town. Skiing at Shanty Creek on Christmas Day and swimming at night in the heated outdoor pool while snowflakes fell.

The amazing pool at the hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I removed my sarong only to discover I was wearing my underpants instead of my bathing suit bottom.

Hmm, most of these memories involve water...heck, they all do. I wonder if that is significant.

Maybe it means you won’t find me floating in the sea of regret.

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