Turns Out Stuff Really Can Make You Happy

Turns Out Stuff Really Can Make You Happy

Nancy Mitchell
May 11, 2016
When I got it, this couch was the most expensive thing I'd ever bought, besides like, a car. And it did make me happy, dammit.
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

First they told us that money can't buy happiness. But, it turns out, it can, sort of: people who have enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle and not worry about basic things like rent and food and medical bills report being happier than those who don't. (No big surprise there.) Beyond that, science tells us, you're better off spending your money on experiences rather than things, because they will make you happier in the long run. But that also is a little bit wrong.

New research — good news for people like me who may forego a night out or a vacation in order to be able to afford that sofa or that rug — shows that having things does make you happy. It's just a different kind of happiness.

Two Canadian researchers, curious about the relationship between the way we spend our money and our resulting happiness, established a differentiation between the kind of happiness you feel when reflecting on your life and the kind you feel while in the process of actually living it. They posited that, while having great experiences like a fantastic vacation or going to a great restaurant could produce moments of deep satisfaction in times of reflection, having nice things could also make us happier in smaller, more diurnal ways.

To test this, they questioned a bunch of college students (it's always college students) about the gifts they received in the holiday season in 2014. Some participants in the study were asked about a physical gift they'd received: others, about an experience-related gift like concert tickets or a gift certificate to a restaurant. Up to five times a day the study participants were asked how much their gift was contributing to their happiness, and whether they were using it at that particular moment.

The results: the students who received experiential gifts reported deeper feelings of satisfaction with their gifts — but they also reported having these feelings less often. Material objects, on the other hand, produced smaller bursts of happiness more consistently.

The takeaway is that you shouldn't necessarily feel bad about spending money on that pair of shoes or that sofa. If getting the most satisfaction for your dollar is your goal, buying something nice can be equally as effective as doing something nice — provided it's something you'll actually use (or at least think about) on a regular basis.

You can read more about this experiment (and the power of money to purchase happiness) at New York Mag's Science of Us.

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