Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The secret of happiness lies in what you do, not what you buy

Money can indeed get you happiness, provided you know how to spend it

In one of the most iconic cinematic lines ever uttered, Humphrey Bogart’s character tells Ingrid Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris," referring to their doomed whirlwind romance in the 1942 film Casablanca. 

While the line achieved immortality and was repeated in Star Trek, it also got researchers at Cornell University thinking about whether there was a bigger human truth in this statement. Specifically, if there was something more gratifying, enduring and lasting happiness-inducing about experiences, such as time spent in Paris. 

We all want to lead a life of happiness, satisfaction, and contentment. Arguably, no other pursuit in life demands such consensus. A Google search on “how to be happy" yields over 250 million results. Our preoccupation with happiness is justified given that, apart from the omnipresent anecdotal evidence, research shows that happier people are healthier, better at relationships, more creative and even make more money. It’s a positive, virtuous cycle. 

While conventional wisdom says “money can’t buy you happiness", extant research over the last decade shows that money can indeed buy happiness and improve well-being, provided you spend it right. 

In a research programme uncovering the antecedents of happiness, Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues at Cornell University consistently show that happiness comes to those who spend their money doing things, rather than having things. In other words, experiences (dining, dancing, hiking) make us happier than possessing (shoes, jewellery, gadgets, etc.). This isn’t newfound wisdom—even the Bible has Jesus reprimanding, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions". 

Experiences don’t just provide fleeting, momentary happiness. The experiential advantage lies in their ability to make us feel more learned and cultured, and to fulfil the deep-seated desire for the higher order goal of achieving one’s potential. 

Experiences define who we are 

What’s in your bucket list? Not surprisingly, bucket lists are stacked full of experiences we want to collect before we die and not the things to hoard before the D-day. And for good reason too. 

Whether they are simple ones like sitting on Marine Drive in Mumbai and marvelling at the Maximum City and curing a hangover with a hearty breakfast at Britto’s in Goa, or lofty ones like running a marathon, we are a sum total of our experiences. No wonder then, we regard experiences as closer to self, as an integral part of our identity. 

As gratifying as a Patek Phillippe watch or Hermes Kelly handbag may be, they remain distant from our sense of the self. In a testament to the centrality of experiences in defining who we are, when asked to write their life story, people were more likely to embed experiences in the narrative, rather the material possessions. 

People also intuitively believe that our experiential purchases are more indicative or telling of who we are. In a fascinating study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were asked to imagine that they were going to meet a new person who might be important in their life (e.g., a potential romantic partner or co-worker). They were told that they would get only one piece of information about this person prior to the meeting, either about their material possessions or about the experiences they’ve had in the past. 

Not surprisingly, a significantly greater number of people opted to know about the person’s experiential purchases. They believed that this information would give them more insight into the other person’s true self, be more useful on meeting this person and be more fun to talk about. 

Experiences are uniquely yours 

Much like Lord Voldemort, a part of you lives in your experience—making it uniquely yours and in turn, altering you forever. Even if both of us go to the same restaurant and order the same dish, our “experiences" could be completely different. Intuitively, this makes them less prone to comparison and subsequent pulling down. On the other hand, the tangible nature of possessions makes them highly susceptible to difficult comparisons. 

This incomparability of experiences is not dependent on actual consumption. For argument’s sake, imagine choosing between two beach vacations (say, Phuket and Hawaii) versus two mobile phones (say, Apple and Samsung). The mobile phones can be put next to each other, making the virtues and the vices apparent, here and now. Try doing that for the vacations? Sure, you could place the brochures side by side, but the comparison will be far too dependent on your imagination. 

Experiences build social capital 

Happiness is only real when shared. That is another reason why people derive lasting happiness from experiences rather than material possessions. We dine out with friends and co-workers, go on vacations with family and attend concerts and games with other music and sports lovers. 

But we use the latest iPhone by ourselves, usually commute alone in our swanky BMW and are the only ones looking at the shiny Rolex watch for time. In other words, people are at the center of the narrative when it comes to experiences, but possessions are more solitary. 

2013 research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that solitary experiences are preferred no more than material possessions. Even if it’s an incidental discovery, research shows that we feel closer to strangers who share our experiential purchases, compared to those who share the same material possessions. 

Experiences make the best stories 

The best stories in life are about the things that you did, not the things you bought. Like a gift that keeps on giving, experiences build social connections because they are more amenable to storytelling. 

Try this thought experiment. Imagine that you could go on a beach vacation. Which are the top two destinations you would like to go to? Now imagine that you could buy an electronic gadget. What are top two electronic gadgets that you would like to buy? 

Here comes the twist. You can have your first choice if you promise not to talk to anyone about it, or you could have your second choice and freely talk to others. An overwhelming majority of participants facing this dilemma in this study opted for their second-favorite vacation, provided they could tell people about it rather than their highest rated vacation they had to keep secret. 

This was in stark contrast to the choice in electronic gadgets, where almost 80% of the respondents were happy to get their most favoured gadget, even if it meant not talking to anyone about it. 

Despite living in a world of increasingly unparalleled abundance, happiness remains elusive and fleeting. In case you could do with a little bit extra in the happiness department, consider shifting some of your discretionary spending from possessions to experiences. Your happiness levels will thank you for it.  

Shilpa Madan is a consumer psychologist in training at the Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Her research explores the myriad facets of the pursuit happiness and well-being. In her previous life, she has worked with Unilever in marketing and sales, in Singapore and India, across home and personal care. 

She tweets at @Shilpa_Madan

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