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Want to Buy Happiness? Three Items for Your Shopping List

Purchase pleasure through shared experience, time, and personal rewards.

Source: Goodluz/Shutterstock

Of course, the best things in life are free. Prioritize faith, family, and friends; savor health over wealth.

But if you are going to spend money, can you buy happiness? This is an evergreen question, answered differently depending on who you ask. There is agreement, however, regarding the fact that it depends on what you buy. Here are three ideas for your happiness shopping list.

1. Buying Well-Being: The Priceless Expense of Shared Experience

Think about the last time you experienced something that brought you great pleasure. Chances are, you did not do it alone.

In a study entitled “Buying well-being” (2018), researchers Aknin et al. compared spending money on products versus experiences.[i] In order to maximize happiness, they suggest purchasing experiences, not possessions. They note that experiential purchases are more social, often involving family and friends, which fulfills the basic psychological need to belong. Material acquisitions, in contrast, tend to be solitary endeavors.

Aknin et al. also point out that purchasing experiences is more central to our identity than purchasing objects, and life stories are more likely to include experiences than material possessions. This makes sense when you think about the types of posts you read on Facebook. Aknin et al. suggest that although research shows that posting information about purchases increases happiness, sharing information about experiences may provide even greater gains.

Yet not all experiences are created equal. Some can be both exceptional and isolating — if no one can relate to you. Have you ever seen or experienced something extraordinary, perhaps a stunning view or an excellent meal, and wished you could have shared it with someone you love? This common sentiment corroborates the findings that the most enjoyable experiences are those that can be shared.

Aknin et al. cited examples from prior research noting that although exceptional experiences, such as a movie screening with a favorite celebrity, might be more enjoyable than routine daily events, they might have social costs. Most people cannot relate to the experience, reducing opportunities for subsequent conversation, which can decrease post-experience well-being. Shared social activities appear to be more enjoyable than extraordinary adventures experienced alone.

2. Spending Money to Buy Time

Many of you can relate to the time versus money dilemma. Sure, you could paint your own fence, although it would take you all day. Or you could hire someone to do it, and spend the day with your family having a picnic in the park. It is clear which option is more economical. But which option would make you happier?

Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you more time to spend with loved ones. Aknin et al. found that although time and money are both finite resources, people who value time over money are happier.

They cite prior research that studied the notion of buying time by comparing the reported happiness of participants over a weekend when they made time-saving purchases, such as hiring a dog walker, house cleaner, or buying a prepared meal, to a weekend where they spent money on material purchases, such as groceries, air freshener, or a book. As some of you might have guessed, participants reported greater happiness when they used money to save time. They discovered that using money to save time rather than buying material goods increased happiness and reduced stress — which promoted well-being.

3. Personal Reward: Are You Worth Your Own Wealth?

Do you have to spend money on sharing experiences with others or buying time in order to be happy? Not necessarily. It is indeed possible to splurge on yourself without feeling guilty. It depends on how you view the expense.

Research shows that we derive greater satisfaction when we spend money the way we choose to, although we do not always have that luxury.

A mandatory donation sounds like an oxymoron; yet socially coerced payments are commonplace. Some workplaces routinely collect money for parties, baby showers, or gifts for co-workers you have never met. You willingly fork over the cash, but obligatory generosity is not always fulfilling. Aknin et al. explain that prosocial spending is most likely to predict happiness when it is volitional, not forced.

They also note that while spending money on others, referred to as prosocial spending, was linked to well-being, spending money on ourselves and paying bills was not.

So how can we actually enjoy money we spend on ourselves? Aknin et al. advise that if you decide to spend money on yourself, in order to maximize your enjoyment, think of it as a reward. That, of course, means you have to earn it.

So wait until you have finished that three-mile hike to buy your triple-shot, soy milk, iced vanilla latte. It will probably taste much better.


[i]Lara B. Aknin, Dylan Wiwad, Katherine B. Hanniball, ”Buying well-being: Spending behavior and happiness,” Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 2018,1-12.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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