What brings you happiness? A recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times addressed the subject.* The article noted that a growing body of research shows that the mere whiff of money draws out our selfish sides, focusing us on what that money can do for us, and us alone. In particular, the article explored whether the growing acquisition of things made us happy. Let’s think about that for a minute (gee, I sound like the folks from Freakanomics or Planet Money, wondering if money really brings happiness).
So can money bring happiness? More specifically, can acquiring more stuff or nicer stuff make you happier? In some ways, we need only look at the true happiness of the wealthy, with lots of stuff to manage, protect, move, store, etc. That’s a lot of work. Further, studies by a generation of behavioral scientists show that material goods often fail to deliver lasting happiness.
According to the article, what does give happiness? 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. Experiences come with one more benefit: They tend to bring us closer to other people, whereas material things are more often enjoyed alone. Decades of research point to the importance of social contact for improving mental and physical health.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy going to live theatre and concerts. It is an experience — in fact, live entertainment is a unique experience (unlike movies, which are the same everytime you watch them).
The article goes on to note that the author’s research suggests that doing things for other people can provide an additional boost. In experiments they have conducted around the world, including in Canada, the United States, Uganda and South Africa, they 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. Again, this is easier to see in small theatre. In the large theatre/touring shows, one feels your money is going to a machine. But going to a small theatre — a black box ala The Blank, REP East, Celebration Theatre, etc — directly brings happiness to others. You can see it as you interact with the artistic staff.
That’s not the only way to spend on someone else. We’ve all seen the fun in gift giving. There are also charitable donations. Does sending a check to a charity bring happiness? Alternatively, does charitable happiness come more from volunteering one’s time in addition to money? This ups the social aspect quite a bit. I’ve seen this in synagogue service — people are happy and make friends serving on synagogue boards. I have other friends that get happiness by volunteering with charities such as animal rescue, helping those in need.
The article’s conclusion?
Who was happiest? Those who treated someone else and shared in that experience with them. So the cost of increasing your happiness may be as cheap as two cups of coffee.
Taken together, 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. Which means that rather than waiting to see whether you find $1 million under your mattress tomorrow, you can make yourself happier today. Switching your spending to buying experiences — for both yourself and others — can lead to more happiness than even the most amazingly Amazonian rain shower.
So what makes you happy?
(*: The piece was posted over the weekend; I wrote this up Monday night before posting it at lunch on Tuesday)