Can Money Buy Happiness?

Three Psychological Principles to Consider Before You Make Your Next Purchase

By Sarah Gervais, Associate Professor of Psychology, Social and Cognitive Program and Law-Psychology Program

11 Nov 2015

Sarah Gervais
Sarah Gervais

We’re all familiar with the idea that money can’t buy happiness. Yet, the reality is that we all spend money and for most of us it is a limited resource. How can we spend our hard earned dough in ways that will maximize our happiness? Psychological research offers some useful insights about the connections between money and happiness to consider before you make your next purchase.

    1. Being Rich Isn’t Necessarily the Path to Happiness. Money is important to happiness. Ask anyone who doesn’t have it. Having a higher income, for example, can give us access to homes in safer neighborhoods, better health care and nutrition, fulfilling work, and more leisure time. However, this only works up to a certain point. Once our income reaches a certain level and our basic needs for food, health care, safety, and shelter are met, the positive effects of money—such as buying your dream home—are often offset by the negative effects—such as working longer hours, or in more stressful jobs, to maintain that income.

    1. Doing Makes us Happier than Having. Most people assume that “things” will lead to more happiness than “experiences.” Physical objects—such as the latest iPhone, handbag, or car—last longer than say going to a concert, taking a cooking class, or going on vacation. Buying things does make us happy, at least in the short term. In the long-term, however, we habituate to new things and even though they may have made us excited and happy at first, eventually the item becomes the new normal and fades into the background. The happiness that comes from purchasing experiences, however, tends to increase over time. One reason is that we often share experiential purchases with other people. Even when you’ve driven that new car into the ground, you’ll still be telling stories with your family and friends about that time when you went on vacation to Colorado and you’ll even be chuckling about when the car broke down and you had to spend the night in the shady motel

  1. Consider Spending Money on Others. Most people think that spending money on themselves will make them happier than spending it on other people. Yet, when researchers assess happiness before and after people spend an annual bonus, people report greater happiness when they spend the bonus money on others or donate it to charity than when they spend it on themselves. This occurs regardless of how big the bonus was. One reason for this phenomenon is that giving to others makes us feel good about ourselves

So, before you pull out your wallet or click to order online, think about whether this purchase will really make you happy. If it will jeopardize your basic needs, think twice. If you have some disposable income, considering planning a trip or taking a class to learn a new skill. Finally, in this season of giving, know that if you spend your money on others or donate it to good causes, you may feel better than if you spend it on yourself.

Note: This article presents some basic principles for money and happiness. Individuals differ in their financial situation and psychological well-being. Consult a financial expert or behavioral health professional for guidance about finances and happiness.

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