How to Buy Happiness

Last Updated Nov 8, 2010 3:52 PM EST



Contrary to popular belief, money can buy happiness.

No, it isn't magic pixie dust. You can't just hurl it around willy-nilly and expect everything will be dandy. In fact, retail therapy is not very therapeutic, and there is certainly evidence that buying less can boost your pleasure. But if you allocate your assets in a smart way, you can spend your way to a sweeter life.

"Our most common mistake is trying to enhance our life by buying things," says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. "But studies show that any satisfaction-boost we get from that new watch or that new suit is often fleeting. We quickly get habituated and soon need the next new thing." Experts call this cycle the hedonic treadmill and, as the name implies, it gets us nowhere.

So, better to buy a dinner with friends than a flat-screen TV. An expensive vacation might be a higher-yielding happiness investment than a luxury car. Here's the guiding one-liner that outlines how to use your money in quest of contentment: Try to buy things that dust can't land on: memories, connections and engagement. We have a dozen suggestions, from cheap to dear.

  • $1: A postcard

Unfailingly, people link happiness to feelings of affiliation, whether with family, friends, colleagues or neighbors. So, spending money to strengthen ties offers great happiness-bang for your buck. “There is growing evidence that pro-social spending — whether it’s buying a gift for a friend or donating money to charity — deepens our satisfaction with our lives,” says Michael Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. For a buck plus a stamp, a postcard can nourish a link to your brother or turn a colleague into a pal. The whoosh of our times has given snail-mail an old-school cachet. Not only does your handwriting make it special, so does the thought of you sliding it into a contraption called a mailbox. It has an intimate quality that IMs can’t match. And there’s no need to travel. A beauty shot of the Chrysler Building from a New Yorker or of Hoover Dam from a Las Vegan has a charm that will knit you closer to the addressee.

  • $5: A bouquet of daisies

Arrive at your sister’s or your pal’s with some posies and love will start to bubble. Gifts don’t need to be as generous as much as they need to be thoughtful, to spring from affection for a friend. A modest souvenir from a trip, carefully customized to your Dad’s interest in old bullets or your cousin’s passion for scrimshaw, will make you happy by sending love in your direction.

“Experiments have shown that the regular practice of gratitude brings about significant increases in well-being,” according to Lyubomirsky. And you can build your thankfulness muscles. Buy a journal to stash on the table by your bed. Each night write a brief appreciation for something — the sandwich you had for lunch, for the fact that you can run so fast or your spouse works so damn hard to make the household run smoothly. Sappy? You bet. But it’s eudaetropic — happiness-causing — too.

If you turn an ephemeral object into an artifact, it will nourish the memory with a sharpness that would otherwise fade with time. Anyone can clutter a wall with clich d achievement-focused frame-ables — diplomas, commendations and the like. But you can make quirkier memories incarnate by memorializing more off-center stuff too. Does she still have the Motorola RAZR she was carrying when you screwed up the courage to call her that first time? Gently prod her to upgrade, then surprise her this Christmas by wrapping the RAZR, mounted in a clear block of Lucite. Or be ready for your son’s first homerun, and mount that baseball. If you act as though you respect your story, you may actually start too. Your life will feel as though it has an arc of its own. Little acts of self-respect can burnish our sense that our passage matters. It’s not egotistical, just appropriately proud.

  • $150: Garmont Flash hiking boots

These beauties are a waste of happiness-dollars if you only wear them to the mall. But they are a great outlay if owning them inspires you to explore the exhilarations of Big Bend National Park, or even your local Hundred Acre Wood. Exposure to beautiful things makes all of us feel better. Rather than going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill, you are buying experiences that showcase the world’s variety, that urge you gently outward, away from your familiar furrows.

“In order to be happy, we need to feel as though we’re growing, learning, developing our potential,” says Sonja Lubyomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness. Absent challenges, our boredom can show itself in blue moods. “But by challenging ourselves we create upward spirals, ever-increasing feelings of satisfaction.” So any money spent on expanding your skill-set is a smart happiness bet. Even if you’ve never tooted a horn, spend some money on a beginner guitar and a handful of music lessons. The guitar learning curve is not too steep in the early stages. Apple’s $49 iLife software includes beginner lessons; plus, for $4.99 a pop, you can download lessons from musicians. Sting, for example, will show you the chords for Roxanne. If you haven’t got the music in you, spend in quest of any skill — home-repair, rock climbing, fluency in Mandarin. It doesn’t matter how you challenge yourself, as long as you do.

Sure the grill is useful on July 4. But instead of restricting yourself to off-the-rack traditions, create your own. Got literary pals? Spring for an every-April-23 Shakespeare’s birthday dinner. If you have Tea Party sympathies, celebrate the real one on December 16. More of a blue-state type? Obama was born on August 4. The point is this: Where there had been a big fat nothing on the calendar, you have put a joyful something, an event for friends to anticipate, an occasion around which memories can accrete. Happiness scholars are unanimous in advising that you spend money on experiences rather than on possessions. “The things we do, intrinsic activities, help us grow,” says Lyubomirsky. “They add texture to our inner lives.” Cooking for others almost always leads to happiness.

Spending on health and fitness, specifically exercise, is a good happiness budget-item. Not only do studies show that regular exercise can help assuage depression but, there is early evidence to suggest that the self-discipline a regular workout requires gives people a sense of having met a challenge. “Many repeated frequent small boosts of satisfaction may accumulate into an overall greater sense of satisfaction,” says Norton.

But there is no bigger waste of money than a pricey piece of exercise equipment that becomes a laundry rack. It turns into a perpetual rebuke, an indictment of your laziness. Instead, hire a trainer. First, by the mere act of making an appointment, you’re forcing yourself to show up and work out for an hour. Equally important, you’ll learn new techniques that will make your gym time much more productive in the future.

Spending on travel gets high marks from happiness experts, and since Bhutan is the only country in the world that includes its citizens’ happiness in the equation of its gross national product, you might start there, at the roof of the world. “Experiences also evoke less social-comparison anxiety than possessions,” according to Leaf Van Boven, Ph.D, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “While we can judge our neighbor’s new sports car to be better than our car, our vacation is incomparable. Our experiences belong to us and they’re more reflective of our personal identity.”

A trip to so exotic a destination, so far removed from the humdrum of strip malls — featuring ancient monasteries and alpine rivers — can blow the dust off us, reacquaint us with feelings of wonder. Shared with friends or family, it can become a landmark experience around which connections and memories can grow. And while Bhutan certainly fits the bill, there’s no need to go halfway around the world and spend thousands of dollars. If you’re a city mouse, invest in weekend getaways to the northern woods. And for a country kid, our great American cities offer invigorations that will mature into sustaining memories. Join jetsetter.com to get daily offers for discounted luxury travel.

Yes, a boat is an object, but it’s an object with long happiness arms. “If you buy a boat and sail solo, that’s not pro-social spending,” says Lyubomirsky. “But if you invite your friends to come with you, then the expense can deepen your attachments and create sustaining memories.” And taking the helm has further happiness payoffs: You’ll learn new skills — like navigation, sail handling, and, perhaps, bailing — inspiring a joy that passengers never know. “Researchers have found that when people put labor into something, they value the resulting product more than they do the same product without their input,” says Norton. To research boats, check out discoverboating.com. The so-called Ikea Effect, named after the Swedish company whose furniture often requires assembly, suggests that the secret to life-satisfaction is to invest ourselves. The tomato that we grow in our garden tastes better than the one from our neighbor’s yard because there’s pride in there with the antioxidants. Happy people dive in, test their limits, insist on exploring.

If that vast fortune you’ve squirreled away offshore hasn’t brought you the happiness you hoped, consider endowing a new chemistry building at your alma mater. “Philanthropy is often a source of great satisfaction for the giver,” says Norton. OK, $25 million is probably a budget-buster, but giving less is equally elating. Size doesn’t matter. If you choose a cause that is close to your heart — a health issue that impacts your family, helping U.S. soldiers overseas — you’ll dovetail your dough with your hopes, bringing coherence to your inner life. The biggest bliss-bounce may come from donations whose results you can actually see. So consider springing for art supplies for the grade-school down the street or for a couple of cherry trees to beautify the park on the corner.

  • Free: Paying attention

The practice of mindfulness can help slow the fade of the pleasure you get from a new purchase. Each time you put on that sweet leather jacket — the one that feels like butter and smells like hope — take a beat to relish it anew, savor its suppleness as though it were the first time you’d ever had the pleasure. Tonight, take a moment to admire the curve of your wife’s neck. Listen, carefully, to every word your daughter says. Tomorrow morning, focus, for a moment, on the smell of wet leaves. Academic studies endorse your grandmother’s advice: Count your blessings.

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