May 20, 2013

"How to buy happiness."

"The new science of spending points to a surprising conclusion: How we use our money may matter as much or more than how much of it we've got."

I don't know why that is "surprising," but the details are perhaps worth noting. For one thing, buying a house or moving to a better house is found unlikely to bring more happiness.
And dozens of studies show that people get more happiness from buying experiences than from buying material things. Experiential purchases — such as trips, concerts and special meals — are more deeply connected to our sense of self, making us who we are....
Some meal you ate is more deeply connected to your sense of self than your home? I find that hard to believe. I think it's more that the meal is over and done with, so the happiness was consumed on the spot and remembered. The house continues and you enjoy it sometimes but are burdened by it too. You have mixed feelings over a long period of time. It's not a memory.
And experiences come with one more benefit: They tend to bring us closer to other people, whereas material things are more often enjoyed alone. (We tend to watch our new television alone on the couch, but we rarely head to a wonderful restaurant or jet off to Thailand solo.) 
That's why you might want to bring loved ones into that house of yours. And why is there no mention of the nonwonderful restaurants and nonwonderful flights overseas?
So, doing things with other people makes a difference for happiness, and our research suggests that doing things for other people can provide an additional boost. 
That's obvious and not about how you spend your money. Dropping dollars on restaurant meals and travel won't necessarily get you better social connections.
In experiments we've conducted around the world, including in Canada, the United States, Uganda and South Africa, we find that people are happier if they spend money on others. And we've found that spending even just a few dollars on someone else provides more happiness than using the cash to treat yourself.
This is why we love to pay taxes, no?


wyo sis said...

Paying taxes is not giving to others. It's being mugged.

Brennan said...

It is a great joy to know that 45% of my income goes to feed the hungry IRS employees that need to know what we pray about.

EDH said...

(We tend to watch our new television alone on the couch, but we rarely head to a wonderful restaurant or jet off to Thailand solo.)

"I'm leaning Thai, so I can go to Thailand... for a thing."

rhhardin said...

Buy a dog.

Tank said...


I do get great enjoyment out of the experiences they mention, trips, concerts and good restaurants, but I also get great enjoyment out of some of the things I've bought: guitar, ipad, ipod, golf clubs. I don't think that division works.

SJ said...

And we've found that spending even just a few dollars on someone else provides more happiness than using the cash to treat yourself. This is why we love to pay taxes, no?

Don't know how paying taxes relates to spending money on someone else.

Local: Police/Fire service, schools, water, sewer, libraries, road-plowing, traffic signals, zoning, building inspections, and City Hall.

State: More Police, the Game Wardens, the DMV, social workers (and the system that handles foster-children), road-repairs, prisons, Universities, State Parks, etc.

Federal: Interest on the debt, Social Security, Medicaid, Army/Navy/AirForce, welfare programs, Highways, National Parks, the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian, the War on Drugs... and so much more.

How much of this directly helps others? How much of this keeps lots of paper-shufflers busy?

edutcher said...

You can't "buy an experience". a lot of that experience comes from any of the people who might be with you, the ambiance at the time, etc.

Ann Althouse said...

And we've found that spending even just a few dollars on someone else provides more happiness than using the cash to treat yourself. This is why we love to pay taxes, no?

No, because some Lefty jerk like Willie Whitewater will come along and figure he can spend the money better than you ("Ah'd love tuh give y'all a tax cut, but Ah jest cain't trust yuh tuh spend it raht").

St. George said...

Be grateful. Sleep. Laugh. Do for others. Exercise. Make social connections. Reach out and touch someone. Avoid debt. Apple a day. Pray. Smell roses. Money can't buy me love.

KLDAVIS said...

It's about uniqueness...singularity...being a special snowflake. I've eaten at Alinea and been to Angkor Wat, please let me tell you about it. In my mind, I've blocked out the price tag, the middling dishes, and the 24 hour ride in coach, all that remain after my repeated re-tellings are the highlights. That said, I generally agree with the premise, if not the stated rationale. Homes are money pits, places we spend much of our time plotting how to get the hell away from. Could we get more happiness out of our homes? Sure, but it would require a paradigm shift.

Mitchell the Bat said...

There's an evolutionary explanation, probably.

Henry said...

Is an iPhone a material thing or an experience?

Illuninati said...

Their study is apparently based on statistical averages, and do not apply to individuals.

I get a great deal of enjoyment from my home. It was a big foreclosure which needed a great deal of repair. The projects have been challenging and fun. When you have done the work yourself the building is much more meaningful.

Dante said...

This is why we love to pay taxes, no?

I wonder if I'll get into heaven for paying my taxes. Somehow, though, I don't think so.

But, I can imagine getting a lot of joy from buying a child a birthday gift, or taken them out to dinner, etc. It brings a lot of good feelings when someone provides you gratitude.

Maybe Welfare folks need to go to sensitivity training, and start thanking random strangers for their section 8 houses, food, medical care, etc.

William said...

If you bought your house at the right end of the market, it was probably pretty sweet to come home at night and lay your head down in the best investment you ever made. Conversely, if you bought your house at the height of the bubble, it must have been sad and confining to live within the tightening walls of the worst investment you ever made......My experience with experience has been decidedly mixed. I try to avoid experiene as much as possible. It's better to stay home and watch other people having their experience on the television. Sleeping late is the best experience a human being can have.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

Where can I get one of those Happiness Meters that were used?

Can the Los Angeles Times assure us that the Happiness Meters used were properly calibrated by a certified testing laboratory?

Sorun said...

Home ownership is one those great expectations things. It is great to own your own home, but it replaces one set of irritants and problems with a different set.

Smilin' Jack said...

In experiments we've conducted around the world, including in Canada, the United States, Uganda and South Africa, we find that people are happier if they spend money on others.

I totally agree. And I selflessly volunteer to be the "other" they spend it on. Because I want people to be happy.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

In experiments we've conducted around the world, including in Canada, the United States, Uganda and South Africa, we find that people are happier if they spend money on others.

So to maximize happiness, give money to person A and send a note to person B saying that $ was given to A in the name of person B.

Billy Oblivion said...

The article says:
"Experiential purchases — such as trips, concerts and special meals"

Ms. Althouse says:
"Some meal you ate is more deeply connected to your sense of self than your home?"

No ma'am. SPECIAL meals. Like the time you and your SO went for a drive and got hungry and found this REALLY cool seafood joint in the middle of nowhere.

Or you're 20th anniversary dinner.

Not "Wednesday Pot Roast".

Rusty said...

"How to buy happiness.""

About 35$ for a good bottle of whisky.
100$ for a decent motel room.
200$ for a hooker that knows what shes doing.


It's the simple things.

bagoh20 said...

"Buy a dog"

I think the study shows that you would get more enjoyment from eating your dog with friends.

Bob_R said...

I'll bet it made the authors happy to buy white lab coats and pocket protectors so they could pretend to be scientists.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

How we use our money, or rather the experience, is more important sometimes than what we actually spend it on. I believe that is what the article was trying to say.

In our case, we love to go "antique" and thrift shopping. It is an experience that my husband and I look forward to doing. We don't always spend much, but it is the thrill of the hunt. Finding just that perfect piece of glassware, pottery to fill in the gaps in the collection...AND at a good price. Stumbling on a hidden gem in a pile of junk at a thrift store.

The memories of the experiences are something that we can and do share together. "Here is the antique store that we first went to when we were dating. Remember those Reverse Torpedo stemware glasses that you bought for me to add to my Great Grandmother's pieces? Those were a great find. Wasn't it wonderful to discover that we both loved to do the same things!! And Oh...look...there is the restaurant that we had lunch in that day. They sure had a great Monte Cristo sandwich....let's go again."

It isn't what we spent or what we bought that is so special, it is that we did it together and can look at the cool stuff we have purchased, found, discovered and remember the good times and sometimes even the not so good times, missed opportunities and hardships can be fond memories. Like the time the truck manifold decided to split and we needed to wait for the AAA towing service at that rest area on the side of the road. We had an impromptu picnic with the gift food items we were bringing with us. Ah....thanks for the memories.

ricpic said...

It all boils down to temperament. The here today gone tomorrow types are much more likely to spend big on trips and meals and not be anxious about the cost. Scaredy cats (like me) put the money in a house so at least tomorrow we won't be sleeping under a bridge. My backup plan is a broom closet Pogo has set aside for me at Mayo. So I'm comfortable.

Paddy O said...

75% or so of people are extroverts. 75% of people feel more happiness by doing things that put them in contact with other people.

About 25% of people find happiness in having a place they can call their own, enjoying quiet time.

That's why a lot of people really loved the East Coast, and gradually moved West as cities provided social experiences.

Meanwhile, a smaller but very influential number of people wanted to get away, were pioneers and farmers.

n.n said...

People do not love paying taxes. They do not love involuntary exploitation, especially when it is progressive.

People do love voluntary exploitation. They favor economic exchange. They favor helping others through charitable donations.

People do not love corruption caused by dissociation of risk. This is why Americans are concerned with the consolidation of capital and power (i.e. monopoly) by a select minority, and are especially weary when that monopoly is retained through force (e.g. government).

Chip S. said...

People do not love paying taxes.

I do. I absolutely love it. In fact, I always overpay to the extent that my meager finances allow it.

To repeat...I love paying taxes. Love, love, love it.

That is totally true, and not at all intended for the eyes of whatever IRS agents are monitoring this site.

Carl said...

Pretty shallow stuff. In the first place, I'm sure they are using self-reported happiness, which is fairly bogus. Ask your generic student at a top college getting As whether he is "happy" and I'm sure you'll get a long list of reasons why he's not -- the snoring, rude room-mate, stress over the exam on which he got only 15% above class average, worry about which 5-figure job offer to accept...

People love to complain. People rarely like to state they're very happy, in part not to jinx it, in part because it sounds boastful and doesn't fit in well with Protestant work-ethic culture. The inimitable Russell Baker tells the story of Harry Truman sneering at some complaining civil servant You've only got a three-ulcer job. His point, evergreen, is that Americans like to explain how burdened -- and consequently important -- they are.

So how could they have done better? By looking at objective measures of life satisfaction, like rates of drinking and drug abuse, access to healthcare for what are really mental health issues, rates of divorce, suicide, early death, sickness, bankruptcy. Many of these are direct proxies for how "happy" people really are. And any idiot could tell you they are lower among people with improved material possessions of a certain type -- like owning your own house, like a good retirement kitty, like a stable marriage, like having a few odds and ends of your own.

In the second, they fail to distinguish between marginal rates of happiness production and average. It may well be true if I have $10 to spend, I'll be happier buying my girl a trinket or sending it to starving kids in Africa. But does it then also follow that if I sold my house and car, donated the proceeds to the Red Cross, moved into a cramped apartment with three stoners and thereafter spent half my income on charity, I'd be happier? Let us not be ridiculous.

It's perfectly plausible that at the margin an extra $1 spent on presents or experience might make you happier than an extra $1 spent on an iPhone. But that does not tell you squat about where you should spend most of your money, or even a very big increment like a $1 million lottery ticket (should that ever be relevant). In that sense, this is also shoddy research.

Finally, the ethical underpinnings are reprehensible. The assumption here is that the highest underlying ethical value is pleasure. The article is forced to squeeze service to others in under this squalid hedonistic moral code. Well, personal pleasure is the highest good, of course -- but did you know you can service that good by sending a few bucks to charity?

Blech. If any of these people had ethics a smidge above that of the average high-school sophomore aching to get laid, they might have asked more useful questions: what about meaning and a sense of fulfillment? How can you spend your money -- the hours of your life, even -- to maximize those?

I can understand this in the journalists: as far as I can tell, nobody goes into journalism these days without having the ethical and moral development of a 12-year-old. But you'd think researchers, even social "science" researchers, would be a bit better.

Strelnikov said...

"This is why we love to pay taxes, no?"

Even when you are robbed at gunpoint, someone is arguably benefited but, no, we don't love that, either.

Steve Koch said...

For sure your home can be a big source of happiness. If you live in a beautiful area with low crime, nice restaurants, low taxes, in a comfortable home that is a good investment with a pretty yard, that will tend to make you happier than if you didn't. If you have kids, you want to live in an area with good schools.

n.n said...

Chip S.:

Funny guy. The IRS can see through your thinly veiled sarcasm.

Bob_R said...

"Science," that's the ticket.