When we spend money, we’re doing more than simply buying things. We want to create feelings of happiness, satisfaction and well-being.
But are we really spending our money in ways that achieve those results? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. As one world-famous Japanese “tidying expert” might say, our spending habits don’t spark joy.
The good news: We can shift our spending so our purchases deepen our happiness and help us create more meaningful lives.
The key: Focus more on experiences and less on physical stuff. Here’s why that makes sense—and how to do it.
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCES
Our culture tells us that buying lots of stuff will make us happy. And that is often true—but only up to a point. Ever notice how quickly that rush from having a new gadget, appliance or even car fades?
That’s because acquiring more and more items doesn’t really do the trick. Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology reveals that people who spent money on experiences rather than material goods were happier and felt the money was better spent.
One major reason: The excitement we often get from purchasing things tends to diminish quickly because we get used to seeing the items every day. In contrast, experiences—and the joy and memories they bring—can give us stronger feelings of satisfaction. That can be true even if the experience is fleeting.
Importantly, the good feelings we derive from our experiences tend to last well beyond when the experience happened—giving us a longer-lasting sense of satisfaction than we might get from an object that quickly blends in with our environment.
Example: Watching an elephant in an African safari park for 10 minutes just might stick with you longer than the feeling you get from upgrading your smartphone.
Other reasons researchers think our brains respond better to experiences, according to research from Cornell University and elsewhere, include:
- A better sense of self. Experiences are more a part of who you are as a person, so they can become a bigger driver of how you self-identify (as a person, a parent, a spouse and so on).
- Stronger social relationships. Because we often participate in experiences with other people, experiences tend to foster and enhance social bonding that may strengthen our mental and physical health.
- Greater surprise value. When we buy a product, we generally know what we’re getting. But experiences may be more likely to present surprises—a herd of bighorn sheep suddenly crossing your path in a national park, for example—that stick with you. Such novel experiences can change your perspective in many ways.
DON’T SHUN THE STUFF, HOWEVER
None of this is to say you need to stop buying physical goods that you can hold in your hands. Objects can and do make us happy, too.
That said, one key to getting the most pleasure and happiness from buying stuff may be to focus more on acquiring goods that help facilitate meaningful experiences than on buying goods that don’t.
Example: Buying high-end mountain bikes for the family can lead to more outdoor, endorphin-stimulating biking experiences in fun, interesting locations. Even buying a tricked-out television can be rewarding—if, for example, it causes you to binge-watch shows or movies that you end up talking about with friends.
In short, goods that help create happy social experiences can be money very well spent.
You can spend your money in a huge number of ways. But if you truly want to live your best life, consider focusing your spending on the types of purchases that can potentially maximize your happiness—and the happiness of those around you.