A latte a day or a big climbing trip to Utah? A new TV or a guided trip down the Yellowstone River? Everyone experiences the internal dilemma accompanied with deciding what exactly is justifiable to spend our money on. Headlines tell us that spending money on experiences rather than material goods will make us happier. Although there is no general rule to happiness and therefore no true answer to the common question, “Does money buy happiness?” A variety of factors contribute to the satisfaction an individual receives from purchases.
Arguments supporting the idea that spending on experiences results in a higher level of happiness say it is easier to compare material purchases with other purchases, while comparing experiences is more difficult and goes beyond simply glancing into an individual’s shopping cart. The excitement paired with buying something new is proven to be short-term. “We adapt. And then we want to buy another pair of shoes,” states Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness. These arguments are valid, and new adventures and challenges indeed provide satisfaction, but we cannot completely disregard “things.”
There is, however, “stuff” we can buy that will increase the joy experienced during events. “If things allow us to create, enhance our experiences, connect us with people, they can make us happy,” according to Anthony Ongaro, creator of the blog Break the Twitch. The answer to the human joy enigma cannot be generalized because the fulfillment provided by experiential purchases such as camera gear, musical instruments and a new mountain bike extends beyond the thing itself. An article published by Fast Company, titled “Scientific Proof That Buying Things Can Actually Lead To Happiness (Sometimes),” states that “a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that products that helped buyers create an experience—the so-called ‘experiential purchases’—were as good at providing happiness as life experiences.”
The answer to this well-known question cannot be generalized because different values result in different spending habits. Spending on a fancy dinner or concert tickets will produce more of a thrill, while buying a TV or couch may result in recurrent moments of enjoyment. Whether you want the thrill or the consistency depends on what form of happiness you value.
Personally, I would say that I value a good “thrill” and can easily justify experiential purchases. Although, there is no doubt that buying “stuff” also brings me happiness. If that kombucha will help me get through a long study session, I will not have a problem spending a few bucks on it. I was happy when I bought a new pair of hiking boots because I knew they would enhance all of my future adventures. Buying things that will improve the quality of activities I am passionate about definitely makes me happy.
It is also important to acknowledge the role financial backgrounds play in forming an answer to the question. Research conducted by Wendy Wood, a professor at the University of Southern California, Jacob Lee of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Deborah Hall of Arizona State University found that “people who were less financially advantaged … reported just as much, if not more, happiness from spending on material objects over experiences,” according to a CNBC article titled, “It’s not just experiences—spending on objects makes us happy, too.” Those in a higher social class tend to have plenty of resources and can afford to concentrate more on internal growth and self-development.
It does not have to be so cut and dry. There is a balance that can be achieved between “doing” and “possessing.” Every individual has unique values, passions and priorities. When considering the question, “Does spending on material items make us happier?” It is important to recognize the diversity present in our society and the variety of factors that influence your peers’ spending habits.