We work hard to earn our money and after covering monthly bills, savings and expenses, you’ll want to make sure any extra is well spent. While you may have been eyeing up a new pair of trainers, science suggests that the things we buy don’t actually make us happy. So, what will?

Puddles of pleasure

Dr Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, has conducted a 20-year study that reached a clear and powerful conclusion. Spending money on things doesn’t bring us happiness.

You may have noticed yourself that after making a new purchase, the happiness that purchase provides is only fleeting. This is because:

  1. We quickly get used to our new possessions and a novelty soon becomes normal.
  2. We continuously raise the bar for our possessions. Once we get used to it, we start looking for something even better.
  3. We can’t help but compare our possessions to someone else’s and there’s always someone with something better.

Dr Elizabeth Dunn has also studied this area extensively and she has coined the phrase “puddles of pleasure” to demonstrate the temporary happiness we achieve when we buy things. Essentially our happiness can evaporate quickly leaving us wanting more.

Powerful experiences

Buying things isn’t bringing us happiness, but many researchers have found that experiences will. While the experience itself may be fleeting, it has the power to deliver more lasting happiness that any item you can buy. This is because:

What we experience becomes a part of our identity

Our possessions don’t really make us who we are, however, our experiences do. The places you’ve been and the things you’ve done accumulate to create who you are. Is buying the latest Apple Watch going to change you? No, but a trip to Peru to climb Machu Picchu most certainly will. Gilovich explains:

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

Comparisons don’t really matter

When it comes to experiences, it’s harder to make comparisons with your peers. That’s because it’s difficult to quantify the relative value of two experiences and in a way, this makes the more enjoyable.

A Harvard study demonstrated this when they asked people if they would rather earn less but have a higher salary than their friends or have a higher salary but earn less than all their peers. When confronted with this question, many were unsure of what they would prefer. In contrast, when they were asked the same question concerning the length of a holiday, the majority opted for the longer holiday even though it would be shorter than their friends’ holidays.

Anticipation makes a difference

How do you feel in the run-up to going on holiday? You’ll probably be excited, and you get enjoyment from the anticipation. On the other hand, when you have to wait to purchase a possession, you’re more likely to feel impatient and annoyed. Experiences deliver joy from the first moment of planning through to the memories you will cherish forever.

Experiences last for a short time

Experiences are fleeting and that’s actually a good thing that makes them more valuable to us. When we buy stuff, however, we can feel let down when a thing doesn’t live up to our expectations. You’ve probably experienced buyer’s remorse a few times and what’s worse is that the thing you regret buying tends to sit there reminding us of our disappointment for a while.

Money can buy happiness

Next time you’re about to buy something that you don’t really need and that isn’t going to give you much happiness in the long run, stop what you’re doing. Ask yourself if the thing you want is worth more than putting that money towards an experience and remember while things last longer than experiences, our memories are far more valuable.

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  1. Really interesting post! I like the advice about being more mindful of our purchases and if we really need them. I need to do this more often!

  2. This is great stuff!!! I totally agree that experiences are way better than things. It’s a much better investment. As people, our eyes are never satisfied and we always want more. Having less is better in the long run! 🙂

  3. I LOVE this idea. I think the anticipation of a trip or an experience is part of the joy, and makes the actual experience even better! Terrific post – thank you for writing this.

  4. This is such a good distinction on how to better use money to care for our happiness! Thanks for sharing!

  5. I enjoyed this piece alot. I find it dense when people share the saying ” money can’t buy happiness!”. Unfortunately in this world we live in we do need money for safety, food, housing, security and all these things bring us happiness. And when we are fortunate enough to go beyond the basic income levels and are able to enjoy extra finances many people waste their hard earned money on items that will bore them in a few days or weeks. Travel, meeting new people, experiencing new language food and culture, trying new restaurants, all these experiences hold priceless value in our hearts and minds. And at the end of our lives we realize we can’t take any possession with us but we can hold onto our memories and reflect on a life full of adventure and memories ❤️

  6. This is so true! Also, I hadn’t heard of “puddles of happiness” before, but that’s an accurate way of describing things. Great post!

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