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Spending Your Money on Doing Things vs. Owning Things Will Make You Happier

When it comes to our most valuable assets, most are things that cannot be bought. Family and friends would certainly apply to this category. So would your health, time, knowledge, or, as Mark Twain said, truth. It would be impossible to put a price tag on any of the above.

Beach Vacation

Go ahead and splurge on that vacation; you'll be happier!

But when it comes to spending your dollars wisely, it turns out that some purchases may be wiser than others--at least as far as happiness is concerned.

Let's say you get a bonus at work. Do you spend it on a new fall wardrobe or a vacation? If you want to be happier, Leaf Van Boven, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says you should spend it on the latter. Spending your money on things you can do, as opposed to things you can have, will make you happier in the long run, he says.

"We found that people receive more enduring pleasure and satisfaction from investing in life experiences than material possessions," says Van Boven.

Taken from a practical perspective, this seems to make sense. If your house was burning down and you only had time to grab one material possession, what would it be? For many, it would be their photo album. The memories of different experiences that those photos conjure up are priceless.

But what about scientifically? A national survey involving more than 12,000 participants, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, found similar results. When asked which made them happier, an experiential purchase or a material one, most people chose the experiential purchase.

Van Boven conducted a follow-up experiment and found that, without a doubt, students felt more positive after thinking about an experiential purchase than a material one.

But why? Van Boven says there are three possible reasons why purchases made with the intention of acquiring a life experience make people happier than material purchases.

  1. Experiential purchases are more open to positive reinterpretations. "For example, if you go on a hiking trip, and the weather is terrible, you might not view it as a pleasurable experience in the here and now. Instead, you may view it as a challenge, and over time remember the positive aspects of the experience more than the negative aspects. With material things you can't do this, because they are what they are," said Van Boven.

  2. Experiential purchases are a more meaningful part of a person's identity. "Our culture highly values accomplishing goals and challenging oneself. We strongly value accomplishments," says Van Boven. "Also, experiences tend to be associated more with deeper personal meanings than possessions."

  3. Experiential purchases contribute more to successful social relationships. "Experiences foster relationships because you tend to do things with other people, so there is a great social aspect to it. Furthermore, we often share stories about experiences because they're more fun to talk about than material possessions. They are simply more entertaining," Van Boven said.

Are Materialistic People Happy?

Viewing life materialistically may make you unhappy.

Overall, studies have found that people who value material possessions highly or have a materialistic view about life are more likely to have poor psychological functioning and lower life satisfaction.

"The cycle of materialistic pursuits is disappointing and exhausting in the long run and can make people perpetually unhappy," said Robert Arkin, professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Indeed. Arkin conducted a study that found a certain group of people is more likely to value materialistic things than others: people who face chronic self-doubt. "Feelings of self-doubt can send people looking for meaning in their lives, with a goal toward boosting their self-worth. If they aren't deriving a sense of self-worth from other parts of their lives, they may feel that owning a lot of things proves they are successful."

10 Top Ways to Spend on Experience

Scuba Diving

Having a new experience is priceless.

Interested in furthering your happiness by spending a little of your discretionary income (wisely, of course)? Here are 10 ways to do it.

  1. Travel ... anywhere

  2. Take a pottery, photography, painting, writing, etc. class

  3. Buy hiking boots and head to your nearest forest preserve

  4. Take scuba diving lessons, then go scuba diving

  5. Go to a music concert

  6. Take a road trip with old friends

  7. Have dinner at the chicest place in town

  8. Tour the Grand Canyon on horseback

  9. See a baseball game with your kids

  10. Go on a second honeymoon (or third, or fourth)

Recommended Reading

Does the Moon Really Affect Your Moods? Your Health? Your Sanity? Your Fangs?

Want to Live Longer? Be Wealthier? And Happier? Here is the One PROVEN Secret: Reading!


University of Colorado at Boulder News Release

Ohio State Research News

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