Can Money Buy Us Happiness?
In some cases, what you pay for may cheer you up.
These purchases may give you a boost; but how long will it last?
By Geoff Williams
Money can't buy you happiness, goes the generally accepted wisdom that was probably made up by someone poor, who wanted to bring his rich friends down a few notches. Some scientific studies have agreed with that sentiment, while others have concluded that, yes, being rich helps with being happy. In any case, if you want to crack open your wallet and try to buy some happiness, there are some purchases that may lift your spirits (at least for a while).
Buy experiences, not things. Several studies in recent years, including a report published last year in the journal Psychological Science, have shown that buying experiences – like going on a skiing trip or taking an art class – makes us happier than material goods. Part of that is due to the anticipation of an experience, the study suggests, which is apparently more exciting than when you're waiting to buy merchandise like laptops and clothes.
Another reason paying for experiences can make us happier is that their value endures over time. That seems ridiculous at first. After all, if you buy new stuff, like a lamp, you might have that stuff until you die. If you go on a weekend trip with the family, it's over come Sunday. Arguably, that's why many people choose to buy things over spending money on doing something fun.
Still, unlike buying new clothes or a new electronic gadget, "We can savor the memories of a vacation for a lifetime," says James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and author of "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy."
"The thrill from material purchases is usually short-lived," Roberts adds, explaining that this is especially true when monthly bills for the purchase keep coming. "Often, the boost we get from spending on ourselves quickly disappears."
Some brand names may make you (briefly) happier. There are always exceptions to these rules, and Kordell Norton, a business consultant and speaker in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, thinks he’s found one. Some business have a knack for making customers so happy that the mere act of interacting and buying from the company feels like a pleasant experience versus a mere transaction, says Norton, whose book, “Business Charisma: How Great Organizations Engage and Win Customers Again and Again,” is soon to be released. Think companies like Disney, Apple, Trader Joe's and Harley Davidson, he says.
"Harley-Davidson may have one of the lowest quality scores in their industry," Norton says, "but they rank highest in customer loyalty."
And Starbucks? "They build a personal relationship with the customer, the moment the individual customer's name goes on the cup," he says.
This is great for the company, and something cost-conscious consumers should be aware of when shopping from those brands they feel most loyal to. Is this fleeting moment of happiness you experience worth the money? If the shopping experience really makes you happy, maybe so. But if your constant purchases from the brand are the reason you're always short on cash, perhaps you should seek happiness elsewhere.
But for the most part, the happiness people get from spending money on most products doesn't last long, according to Norton. "Quickly those things we purchase, our trophies, gather dust like so many plaques and awards on some shelf," he says.
Buy something for someone else and not yourself. Sounds suspiciously like talk from the head of a charitable organization, but numerous studies have shown that if you really want to be happy, you’d do well to spend your money on other people – not yourself. In fact, a high-profile series of studies published in a 2008 issue of Science concluded that even spending $5 a day on someone else, whether a charity or needy stranger, can boost an individual's happiness.
"Using our strengths for a cause larger than ourselves is the real secret to a meaningful life," Roberts says.
Milestone purchases. If you make an impulse buy or tend to habitually buy the latest, greatest items, such as the new-model tablet, your happiness is probably going to dissolve quickly. But that widescreen TV you've always dreamed of having? Or the living room furniture you've been coveting for years? That probably will make you pretty happy, according to Allen Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
From what he has seen, some types of purchases have made his patients happy, particularly those that symbolize an individual or family reaching a new level in their lifestyle.
"When people work really hard, we typically need a carrot to give us that strength and push us over the hump," Wagner says.
He says for some people, that will be a new car, or maybe a new swimming pool or expensive clothes.
"Typically, it's not a name brand that will lead to happiness. It's a person's ability to make their lifestyle what they always fantasized and imagined it to be," Wagner says.
Joe Luciani, a New York City psychologist who writes self-coaching books, agrees, at least when it comes to the new car purchase. "I've worked with numerous patients throughout the years who were able to find significant happiness and serenity from buying the car of their dreams," he says. "When depressed, anxious, physically limited, or otherwise feeling powerless, that new car seems to offer immediate compensation in the form of refuge, mobility, responsiveness, escape and a sense of total control."
Still, common sense would dictate that if you're going to splurge, be certain that you can afford the car of your dreams – otherwise, those monthly payments might turn into a nightmare. That's when you'll realize that you aren’t actually living the new lifestyle you've been working so hard to hit. You're just paying for a new lifestyle you can't afford.
The Spiritual Edge: The key to happiness? It's in the science
By Liz Mak
U.C. Berkeley is known for its world-class scientists, in disciplines like physics, chemistry or biology. But just a few blocks away from campus, you’ll find the school’s Greater Good Science Center, where one scientist focuses on something different - the science of Happiness.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas has a PhD in Cognition, Brain and Behavior. She’s also the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley. Ask her for a definition of the term, and Simon-Thomas says defining “happiness” isn’t so clear-cut.
“Happiness has to do with having an easy time of feeling positive emotions,” she says, “being quick at recovering from negative emotions -- although you do experience them -- and having a sense of meaning and purpose that is tied to the collective. ‘I’m contributing in a meaningful way to the people around me.’”
I visited Simon-Thomas at her office in Berkeley. On her desk she’s placed a mug where she keeps her pens, with a graphic displaying the “six habits of happiness worth cultivating.” They include dropping grudges, giving thanks and practicing kindness.
The diagram makes the argument that the pursuit of happiness is multi-layered. And that’s what the “Science of Happiness” course teaches, too.
The course draws from scientific studies focusing on the different components of happiness, from social connection to compassion to gratitude and cooperation. But Simon-Thomas says the point of the class isn’t just to teach students how these relate theoretically to happiness. It’s also meant to give students the tools to live the best lives they can.
“To really find their groove,” she says. “To discover how to be who they want to be in the world.”
The world where Simon-Thomas engages with her students is purely virtual. This is an online self-paced classroom, with discussion boards and video lectures ... and more than 150,000 students, from all around the world.
One of those first lessons teaches that finding happiness can be an uncomfortable process. For example: The fourth week’s assignment directs students to find someone they think has wronged them, and then learn to forgive that person in just eight steps.
Simon-Thomas says there’s scientific evidence that proves forgiveness is an important element of happiness. Scientists used to believe that primates engaged in conflict would run away from each other and remain apart.
Simon-Thomas says the thinking was that the primates would make the connection: “‘That’s a hostile person and I’m not going to come near them again.’”
But the reality is different. “[The primates] don’t do that. A lot of the time they come back to one another and reconcile.”
Simon-Thomas says as humans, we are inclined to make peace, too. “I often return to these primate studies,” she says, “because we want to convince people that this isn’t something we have to learn from our culture … it’s our biological endowment for cooperation, reconciliation.”
An exercise in forgiveness
In taking the course, I found myself calling up an ex-boyfriend, Albert, as part of an exercise instructing students on how to forgive.
At the time, it had been several weeks since Albert moved to New York and we broke up. During the end of our relationship, his attention was elsewhere -- both professionally, and personally. And for that last part of our relationship, I felt unimportant to him, like I was always waiting for him to notice I was there.
Since then, I truly believed I’d forgiven him -- and yet I still found myself getting angry with him in conversations. So I placed the call: We chatted for an hour. It was the same conversation we’d had before, and the entire time, I kept thinking back to a certain part of the exercise, directing students to see if the conversation inspired more compassion towards the person. But I didn't feel anything.
And then Albert said something that moved me: “I think it’s been rare that you’ve believed that I was trying,” he said, “even though I felt like I was trying pretty hard. It would’ve been nice, you know, to feel like my efforts meant something."
It made me realize that Albert’s been great about acknowledging my efforts -- I had to make more of an effort to acknowledge his, too.
The exercise marked the first time I truly understood where Albert was coming from -- that any perceived neglect wasn’t about a lack of caring for me. The assignment really did help me forgive in a way I couldn’t before.
Simon-Thomas had pointed out that even primates have evolved to do this. But to find out why this process of forgiveness is linked to happiness, I turned to Dr. Fred Luskin, who works at Stanford and is an authority on positive psychology. Luskin says, after forgiving someone, “you don’t feel this need to complain about your life.”
“When you have a grudge or you’re wounded, this urge to tell people and to blame stuff on it, and to just feel like life has done you a bad turn -- it disappears,” Luskin says. “And you find that you want to talk more about what’s good.”
According to the course, appreciating the good is a fundamental element of happiness. Yet Luskin says in the past, psychology used to focus on something counter to that knowledge: the things that are wrong with people.
Luskin says it was only relatively recently that psychologists began to research and teach positive traits like hope, compassion and forgiveness. He says these are qualities that people used to associate mainly with religion and spirituality -- but now, we’re studying them as part of science, too.
“What may have been owned by religious traditions such as forgiveness, being kind, being generous, being grateful -- those are also secular qualities,” he says. “But they were kept away from mainstream science because religion owned them. And now they’re being blended.”
This blending is what the Greater Good Science Center is doing with its Science of Happiness course: giving people tools that they can use regardless of whether or not they hold religious beliefs.
One of my fellow students, Anne Hardy, says one of her tools is a newfound sense of empowerment. For her, having a list of steps and assignments made it easier to make changes in her life. When it comes to exercises like my forgiveness exercise, she said, “finding some steps for what to follow, it gives you courage.”
“You don’t think about the fear that you have. Because it’s like, I’ll do that and do that and do that and it’s going to work.”
Research Proves That Money Can’t Buy Happiness
By LINDA & CHARLIE BLOOM
A recent study conducted by two Emory University economics professors provides more evidence, documented by formal research, that money can’t buy happiness, or to be more precise, that spending a lot of money on a lavish wedding doesn’t make a couple’s future prospects for happiness any more likely than spending less. In fact, according the findings of Professors Hugo Mialon and Andrew Francis, a couple that spends over $20,000 on their wedding is significantly less likely to have a happy future together than a couple who spends between $5000-$10,000 on their big day. What they found in their study of over 3000 individuals was that those couples that opted for the higher-cost weddings were 1.6 times more likely to divorce then those who paid under $10,000 for their weddings.
According to Mialon and Francis, theirs is the first academic study to examine the correlation between wedding expenses and the length of marriages. The wedding website TheKnot.com, stated that a recent survey of 13,000 couples in the United States revealed that the average amount spent per wedding in 2013 was $29,858. Nearly 15% of couples spent more than $40,000 on their wedding and related events, not including the honeymoon. Other big-ticket items that contribute to the expense include engagement rings (at an average of $5,598), reception bands ($3,469), flowers and other decor ($2,069) and wedding photos ($2,440).
In offering an explanation for so many couples’ willingness to spend so much on weddings, Professor Francis stated, “The wedding industry has long associated lavish weddings with longer-lasting marriages. Industry advertising has fueled norms that create the impression that spending large amounts on the wedding is a signal of commitment or is necessary for a marriage to be successful.” He went on to claim that their findings “provide little evidence to support the validity of the wedding industry’s general message that connects expensive weddings with positive marital outcomes”.
The study did however, find a correlation between the number of people who attended the wedding and the divorce rate which indicated that the greater the number of attendees, the lower the rate of divorce.
Lest readers be too hasty to conclude that the way to divorce-proof your marriage is to spend as little as possible on your wedding and to invite as many people as possible to it, two seemingly contradictory suggestions, let us remind you that there are other ways to minimize the possibility of divorce and maximize the likelihood of a happy marriage. That, however, is a subject too extensive to justice to in one blog or newsletter. Check out our archives to find some useful ideas (bloomwork.com).
Here’s the abbreviated answer to the question of how that goal can be attained more effectively:
Start with the end that you have in mind and begin by focusing on the kind of marriage that you want your wedding to lead up to.
See if you can identify the kinds of qualities that you will want to strengthen and develop in yourself in order to be able to bring about the outcome that you desire. Give some thought to the kind of behaviors and practices that will support the development of these qualities.
For example, if generosity is something that you think would be something that you think would be nice to have more of in your relationship, you might want to look for opportunities to be more giving in your life. Don’t limit your gifts to material items, but be more willing to give your time, and attention to your partner in an effort to make his or her life easier, more enjoyable, or more fulfilling.
If you’d like to have a high level of trust in your relationship, look for opportunities to make yourself more trustworthy by holding a higher standard to respectfulness and integrity.
If you really value honesty, make a decision to be truthful and raise your standard of truthfulness in your life to a higher level. If you want to have the most trusting marriage you can have, become the most trustworthy person that you can be.
Keep all of your agreements. Don’t make excuses to justify any lapses that occur and accept responsibility for your actions. If you think that your relationships can’t possibly be any better than it currently is, check in with your partner to see what he or she thinks either or both of you could do that could might further enhance the quality of your partnership.
Many couples make the decision to marry while they are still in the throes of infatuation, which can be a time in which it seems literally inconceivable that either one of us could ever feel anything but love and adoration to the other. In the long run, this turns out to be rarely the case, very rarely.
If you think that the idea of embodying practices that will make you a better, more loving, and trustworthy person, is easier said than done, you’re probably right. But putting your attention on becoming the person of your dreams rather than hoping that a financial investment in your wedding will produce the real payoff that you desire is far more likely to bring about your desired outcome.
The Emory University study didn’t offer any definitive reasons as to exactly why well-attended weddings correlated to fewer divorces, or why more expensive weddings did not correlate with more successful marriages. They simply noted the outcomes without asserting any definitive causality. Feel free to draw your own conclusions. We’re in the relationship-enhancement business, not the wedding business and we don’t see them as being mutually exclusive. But as the saying goes, the most important factor in determining what develops in your life has more to do with what you most value and where you put your attention and energies. Weddings are a one-day event. Marriage is a life-long process. Hopefully.
Should Happiness Really Be the Goal?
By Therese Borchard
According to renowned psychiatrist Peter Kramer, happiness isn’t the opposite of depression.
I’ve always loved that reminder because the word “happiness” makes me uneasy.
It’s not that I want to be unhappy, or I don’t want to be happy. It’s that every time I make happiness my goal, I become very unhappy. Like that famous study about suppressing thoughts of white polar bears. When everyone was instructed to think about anything but a white polar bear, they all thought about a white polar bear.
To be completely honest, I even hate the “life is good” T-shirts.
I prefer the “life is crap” ones, such as the one with the cruise ship about to plow over the guy in the canoe. Whenever my husband wears that one, it puts me in a good mood.
I smiled at the discussion on my online depression community, Project Beyond Blue, called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Maggie, a young mother of five kids and one of the group’s administrators, had just read Eat, Pray, Love — about author Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to “leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find, instead, what she truly wanted from life” (the Amazon description). Maggie was a tad frustrated by the entire concept. She wrote:
“It’s probably because I’m a cradle Catholic, but I found this whole journey of hers to be innately selfish and egocentric. I mean, we’re all human. Who wouldn’t be happy with no money worries for a year, doing whatever you wanted, with whomever you wanted, wherever you wanted? I think even a week of this lifestyle would be enough to make me feel ‘happy.’ But this year-long journey of self-discovery is totally unrealistic to me. It’s like looking at someone’s Facebook page that just loves to put up pictures of their latest vacations, or their brand new, custom-built home. Yes, there is some envy mixed in there. I fully admit that. But my fear is that too many people these days are buying into this whole notion of ‘do whatever makes you happy.’ ”
I laughed out loud at that because I remember exactly where I was when I picked up Eat, Pray, Love the first time. I had snuck out of my inpatient program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That’s right, I broke out of the psychiatric ward to meet my husband and spend an afternoon with him. Just him. No kids. We hadn’t spent a few hours alone with each other in months, maybe years. So we strolled around the inner harbor of Baltimore and ambled to the Barnes & Noble right there, in front of the paddleboats.
I picked up the book because I had heard about it. However, as soon as I read the back cover, I got queasy, and quickly put it back down. I remember thinking to myself, “I am about as far away from her notion of happiness as Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s green diet is to fried Oreos.” It all seemed so unrealistic and, like Maggie said, self-absorbed. Who wouldn’t want a life without commitments? Who wouldn’t want a week of Saturdays? And even if I could pull it off — a life without commitments, a life of Saturdays — is that really what I should strive for? Where would the world be today if everyone strived for a life of Saturdays? Would we have benefited from the contributions of extraordinary people like Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa? Their lives included lots and lots of Mondays, weeks full of just stressful, painful Monday mornings.
Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin tackles this indictment in her blog post, “Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish and Self-Centered to Try to Be Happier.“ She writes:
“Myth No. 10 is the most pernicious myth about happiness. It comes in a few varieties. One holds that ‘In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.’ Another one is ‘Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.’
Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.”
Gretchen’s book The Happiness Project is packed full of impressive research why striving for happiness benefits everyone, and she backs it up with her personal experience. When she is feeling happy, she finds it easier to notice other people’s problems. She has more energy to take action, to tackle the sad or difficult issues. She is less consumed with herself. In working on her happiness project she came to an intellectual breakthrough that she calls her Second Splendid Truth: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
I get that. And I have tons of respect for Gretchen.
But I think there’s a definite difference between what positive psychologists and happiness experts like Gretchen are saying, and the philosophy sold to us in Gilbert’s book, and evidenced in a new generation of noncommittal happiness searchers.
It comes down to meaning.
Holocaust survivor and late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl explains it best in his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning:
“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
This need for a reason is similar to another specifically human phenomenon — laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g., you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh. Doing so would be the same as urging people posed in front of a camera to say ‘cheese,’ only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles.”
Frankl’s laughing analogy is perfect.
In Gretchen’s experiment, happiness is a byproduct of the commitments she has made — to herself, to her family, and to her community. Her happiness is a direct result of very hard work, not a life of Saturdays.
I’m not even going to use the term happiness for me — again, because, when I do, the primal part of my brain fires up and I start twitching. But peace or resilience, as Kramer says, that is available to me as a result of investing myself into the world, by tackling all of my Mondays as best I know how, and by honoring my commitments day in and day out.