There is a popular belief that the things that bring us happiness aren’t for sale. Songs have been sung about this, poetry written, and while it’s a lovely sentiment, it is wrong. Money allows us to buffer ourselves against daily worries and gives us more leisure time. It also allows us to control the nature of our daily activities and for us to have more meaningful work. Scientists have found that each of these is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a happy life.

Yet researchers have also found that wealthy people aren’t that much happier than the not-so-wealthy. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues Elizabeth Dunn and Timothy Wilson write in a paper titled “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right", published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in March 2011, that the reason the correlation between happiness and money is modest at best is because people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness. Prof. Gilbert and colleagues have compiled principles on happiness that will help you spend your money in a way that enhances your emotional health. The paper compiled eight principles that are based on more than 80 studies in consumer psychology by Prof. Gilbert, Dunn, Wilson and many other researchers. Of those eight principles, five are presented here.

u Happiness often comes from spending money on experiences

Research shows that people are often happier when they spend money on experiences like vacations and concerts rather than things like clothes. Bangalore-based Talha Salaria, 35, corporate lawyer and founder of Lawyers At Work (LAW), agrees. “A couple of years ago I was wondering whether to gift my mother jewellery for her birthday (which my mother loves) or take her for a holiday to Singapore. Finally, just the two of us went for a holiday and had a fabulous time. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why I even thought about what now seems like an obvious choice."

Some experiences are obviously better than others. Goa-based psychologist Arpita Anand says, “There are memories associated with experiences that continue to bring happiness long after the actual experience is over." People are happier travelling to holiday destinations than travelling in a car to get to work. The key seems to be engagement—if you are engaged in what you do, you will be a happier person.

u Delay your pleasurable consumption, don’t yield to the temptation of instant gratification

Consuming now and paying later can make us susceptible to impulse shopping and eliminate anticipation, a powerful source of happiness. People get a lot of enjoyment from anticipating a forthcoming event and those who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences are happier in general. Timothy Wilson, professor, department of psychology, University of Virginia, US, and author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, says in an email interview: “In a study by George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology, Carnegie Mellon University (US), for example, participants indicated that they would pay more to kiss their favourite movie star in three days than they would to be able to kiss their favourite movie star immediately. Presumably, that is because they would enjoy the three days of anticipation."

u Spend money on others

People are the most profoundly social animals on the planet. Our heightened need to connect translates into the quality of our social relationships playing a strong role in our happiness. And spending money on others helps to improve those connections. Anand agrees: “When you spend on someone who you care about, it is with the intention of bringing joy."

Though research has undoubtedly shown that pro-social spending or spending money on others makes people happy across cultures, it’s a fact that is often invisible. And it could be because research has also shown that thinking about money makes us less likely to donate to charity or help a friend. Bangalore-based Kusum Pai, managing trustee of the Ubuntu at Work trust, an NGO that provides livelihood opportunities to the underprivileged, offers a solution. “When giving money away think about how your money can change lives and make a difference. Remind yourself that the satisfaction you can get from having touched and changed lives is immeasurable."

u Make many small purchases instead of splurging on that one big one

Prof. Gilbert and his colleagues write that if you have to choose, it is often better to spend money on frequent doses of lovely things rather than an occasional big beautiful thing. Small frequent pleasures bring greater joy; research has shown that for most people it is the frequency rather than the intensity of a positive experience that determines the level of happiness generated.

Shamsah Sonawalla, consultant psychiatrist at the Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai, agrees that the frequency of happiness-boosting events matters. She adds: “Should you decide that you don’t like the item you purchased after you’ve brought it home, your guilt is going to be far less for an inexpensive item than for an expensive one."

u Think about what you are not thinking about when making a purchase, particularly a big one

Happiness lies in the details. Yet when we’re looking at our lives in the future we tend to think more abstractly, more “big picture". But Prof. Gilbert and colleagues write that our emotional health is predicted by the stresses in our daily lives. So it is worthwhile to think about how our purchases will affect the ways in which we spend our time. Sonawalla says that thinking through big purchases is important for securing future happiness. That way, she says, you’ll be prepared for the negative aspects of that purchase.

For example, if you’re thinking of building a vacation home in Goa, remind yourself that you will need to spend many weekend trips over a couple of years getting the property ready before you can enjoy it. Tarana Khubchandani, 51, Mumbai-based gallerist, says: “I am so glad we bought a house in Alibaug (near Mumbai) instead of building one. We have been able to start creating those family moments without the stress of having to work with architects and interior designers."

Money is an opportunity for greater happiness that we routinely squander. There is no reason why it needs to remain this way.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

Close