More than a decade of research looks at how our spending choices can make us happier—or leave us disappointed.
When we think about spending our money wisely, we usually focus on getting the best value for the lowest price. We comparison shop and download apps to find the latest discounts and deals; we’re seduced by the daily special or the limited-time offer.
But, for those of us lucky enough to have disposable income, what if we defined wise spending in terms of the happiness that it brings? That’s a completely different way of thinking about our purchases, and one that we have little practice in.
“Most people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don’t know how to use their money to acquire it,” write Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues in a 2011 study.
Luckily, more than a decade of research has been investigating how different types of purchases affect our well-being, and it can help us turn to spend into a happiness practice in its own right. The key, it seems, is to spend money in ways that bring you closer to other people.
1. Spend money on experiences
In a landmark study in 2003, researchers found that buying experiences—like seeing a Broadway play or going for coffee with a friend—improve our well-being more than buyingpossessions. Across different surveys, more than 1,500 participants tended to say that experiential purchases made them happier and were better investments and that their moods were more positive when recalling them.
Thus began more than a decade of research into this phenomenon, unearthing some of the reasons why buying experiences is so beneficial—which can inform our financial choices in the future.
But first, some definitions: Although the distinction between experiences and material goods is sometimes fuzzy (think: books and cars), we tend to intuitively understand which is which. Researchers typically define experiences as things we buy in order to do something, which doesn’t endure in the form of possession; and material goods as things we buy in order to have something.
2. Better yet, spend money on experiences you share with others
Not all experiences are created equal, though, and it’s up to us to choose the ones that are most fulfilling. In a 2013 study, when researchers separated out experiential purchases into social ones and solitary ones—going out to dinner with friends or alone, for example—participants reported that the solitary experiences brought just as little happiness as the material things.
“It may be less the doing that creates happiness than it is sharing the doing,” the authors of that study explain.
Even if we can’t share an experience with others initially, we can share it with them later by telling the story—another advantage that experiences have over material things. Our new kitchen gadget or trench coat loses its conversation value shortly after we buy it, but “talking to others allows us to relive experiences long after they have happened. In this sense, experiential purchases are gifts that keep on giving,” write the authors of a 2015 study.
In fact, that study found that the more we chatter about our experiential purchases, the more happiness we derive from them. This’ll make a great story later is actually a real benefit. A 2012 study also found that people are more likely to mention experiences they bought (vs. material things) when recounting their life story.
With a little change in perspective, though, we can extract more happiness from our possessions by focusing on the experiences they facilitate. At least three different studies found that thinking about gray-area purchases like music and TVs more as experiences than objects helped people see them as more self-expressive and reduce the risk of buyer’s remorse. So the next time you buy a new flatscreen, think of it not as a fancy piece of technology but as a prop for cozy evenings with your spouse, and you might enjoy it all the more.
The story emerging from the research is that experiences become part of our identity, which makes them feel valuable in their own right. Compared to possessions, we worry less about what others will think of our experiences, and they don’t generate the same kind of regret. If anything, we lament the experiences we didn’t buy: the shows we were too busy to attend, the trips we put off. Though experiences may be fleeting, they’re essential to our happiness—so now you’ve got a science-backed excuse to invest in them.
3. Spend money on other people
If you want to bond with other people, you could buy experiences to have with them—or you could spend money on them directly.
In a 2008 study, researchers gave participants up to $20 to spend on themselves or on others that same day, then called after 5 pm to see how they were feeling. In the end, contrary to expectations, participants reported being happier after treating others than treating themselves. The same was true of employees who spent more of their bonuses on donations and gifts, rather than personal expenses and treats.
And this effect may not be restricted to rich, white Westerners. For a 2013 study, researchers gave participants in Canada and South Africa the choice to get $2.50 in cash, take home a $3 goody bag, or give a $3 goody bag to a sick child. Those who made the generous decision reported greater positive emotion at the end of the experiment, in both countries. So did participants in India who simply remembered purchases made for others, compared to remembering purchases for themselves or not recalling anything in particular.
But just because it typically feels good to spend on others doesn’t mean that all generous purchases make us feel warm and fuzzy. Research is starting to understand exactly when so-called “prosocial” spending contributes to well-being, and how to find the most fulfillment in giving.
For example, another 2013 study distinguished between spending on others that strengthens our social connections and spending on others that doesn’t. Researchers gave participants a $10 Starbucks gift card to use that day, in one of four ways: treating themselves to a coffee alone, giving the card to someone else, taking a friend but spending the card on themselves, or taking a friend and treating them. In the end, the happiest participants were the last group: the ones who combined spending on others with social connection (and venti caramel lattes).
4. Spend money on the right people
Does it matter whom we spend money on? Preliminary research suggests that it might. In a 2011 study, participants who recalled spending $20 on someone close to them reported feeling more positive emotion than those who recalled spending $20 on an acquaintance. In the context of evolution, the researchers explain, this makes sense: Early humans who enjoyed helping family members were more likely to see their DNA survive.
The research about spending on others is particularly relevant when we consider donating to charity. For example, it’s important for donors to see the positive impact: When Canadians were given the chance to donate to the charities UNICEF or Spread the Net, bigger donors reported feeling more positive emotion and more satisfaction with life than smaller donors—but only those who gave to Spread the Net, whose pamphlets emphasize that a single bed net can prevent malaria and save a child’s life.
Simon Fraser University assistant professor Lara Aknin, who was involved in both of these studies, applies this research to her own life by treating friends and family to small gifts and trying to make donations that have a big impact. The upshot of her research is that if giving leaves you feeling detached or drained, there may be smarter ways to allocate your dollars so everyone can benefit.
As you might have noticed, almost all of this research asks people to recall spending from the past, or contemplate imaginary choices. Researchers will gain even greater insight when they start to survey participants in real-time to see how they’re feeling about their purchases, like this 2016 study did, or follow them for years after a purchase to see how those feelings change with time.
5. Express your identity through spending
Although dozens of studies support the notion that spending on experiences and other people is advantageous in general, perhaps you’re skeptical. Sure, that may be true for other people, but not for me, you might think—and in some cases, you just might be right. Once general trends are identified, the researchers of a 2016 study explain, the science of happy spending will have to start accounting for individual needs and preferences.
For example, demographics and personality may influence how spending affects our happiness. Several studies found some evidence that the happiness advantage of experiential purchases (over material ones) is even stronger for women than it is for men; in that pioneering 2003 study, it was also stronger for young people, highly educated people, and city dwellers.
In contrast, people who behave more materialistically—tending to accumulate possessions rather than experiences—seem to derive equal happiness from both types of purchases, a 2014 studyfound. Why? Researchers discovered that experiences are less critical to their identity; these aren’t people who define themselves by the things they’ve done, like the fun-loving adventurers who splurge on plane tickets or the foodies first in line at five-star restaurants.
Meanwhile, and perhaps unsurprisingly, people who have little concern for others don’t seem to derive greater happiness from prosocial rather than selfish spending. Future research will have to investigate whether all these findings are mere blips or evidence of real and robust differences.
A 2016 study specifically tested whether personality influences the happiness we get from our purchases, analyzing six months’ worth of spending by customers of a UK bank. Purchases were grouped into 59 categories, from gardening to coffee shops, accounting to dentists, which each got a Big Five personality score. (Spending on charities might reflect conscientiousness and agreeableness, for example, while spending on tourism might reflect an openness to experience and extraversion.) Participants with a better match between their personality and the personality of their purchases reported more satisfaction with life.
In a follow-up study, the researchers contrasted two stereotypically opposite purchases: shopping in the quiet, reflective haven of a bookstore or the bustling, social environment of a bar. They found that spending $10 at a bookstore increased the happiness of introverts, and spending at a bar increased the happiness of extroverts—but not vice versa.
“Money enables us to lead a life we want,” says coauthor Sandra Matz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. As she and her coauthors write, “Finding the right products to maintain and enhance one’s preferred lifestyle could turn out to be as important to well-being as finding the right job, the right neighborhood, or even the right friends and partners.”
6. Think less about spending
In the end, though, the best way to cultivate happiness through spending may be to not focus on spending so much in the first place.
In one 2002 study, for example, researchers found that adults were happier around Christmas—feeling more satisfied, more positive, and less stressed by the holiday craziness—when they put greater emphasis on family and religion and less emphasis on giving and receiving. Just this year, a new study found that people who valued time over money tended to be more satisfied with their lives in general and felt more positive and less negative emotions recently.
It’s certainly misguided to stake all our hopes of happiness on our purchases. But so is ignoring the role that they do play in our well-being, a role that is becoming clearer and clearer. Buying is an opportunity to express our personality, to connect with others, and to craft a meaningful life story, and what better definition is there of money well spent?
Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter!