"But Will It Make You Happy?"

Does stuff make you happy? 

Stephanie Rosenbloom's nuanced analysis of the current research about the connection between consumption and happiness is here.

Her key points:

1. Do instead of collect.
Spending money for an experience– classes, travel, concert tickets– produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on another bag or sweater.

2. Spend on leisure.
In one study, the only category of consumption that is positively correlated to happiness is leisure (vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment), because that spending typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness.

3. Make it last.
Remember the kid on the playground who made his jawbreaker last for all of recess? Longevity contributes to perceived happiness; therefore, experiences provide more happiness because you can't "consume in one gulp".

4. Look forward.

Anticipation increases happiness, so book that trip months in advance instead of buying a last-minute ticket.

5. Have less to enjoy more.
Having an embarrassment of riches reduced the ability to reap enjoyment from life's smaller pleasures, like eating a Lindt Fleur de Sel chocolate bar.

I don't see the possessions/experience choice as an either-or proposition, and feel a jolt of joy when I buy yoga classes, contribute to a charity I revere or treat a friend to a visit to Body Blitz with me. (Oh yes...and occasionally I buy pearls.)

I'm far less acquisitive than a decade or two ago; are you? The notion of having less stuff, more time (the life shift described by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in "Your Money or Your Life") resonates.

And this 2004 TED talk, by Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of "Stumbling on Happiness" challenges the idea that we won't be happy if we don't get what we want in an entertaining 20-minute video.

Are you happier now than you were five years ago?  What do you consume that contributes to your happiness?


coffeeaddict said…
An excellent post, Duchesse!
I don't believe that spending money on an activity instead of a product necessary brings more happiness. I do agree though that it should be a balanced mix of both: what good is a closet full of clothes if you don't have the money to go out and wear them?
In the past five years I've definitely simplified my life. I noticed that I was no longer happy, ecstatic even after I bought something.
There was a time when I was positively bouncing with joy for days after I bought myself a CD of my favourite singer or a scarf...
I no longer go to the shopping centers on a weekly basis, I've scaled it down to two times a month maximum.
I've stopped buying glossy, trendy fashion magazines where everything was an add for some product they wanted to convince me I had to have in order to be happy.
These days I find joy in buying fabric (I practically stopped buying clothes) and beading supplies.
And I've also scaled down my cosmetics and make-up purchases significantly.
Susan B said…
Great points, Duchesse! I so agree with what's laid out here. Le monsieur and I began traveling after my bout with a potentially serious health issue (am in fine health now) in 2007, when we realized that there's no guarantee of "someday" or the vitality to enjoy the things we want to do. We very much enjoy the anticipation and planning of our trips. It feels good to pare down my wardrobe and other possessions, and be more selective about what comes in.

I'd add one thing to the "Happiness" list: a good social network. Feeling connected to people certainly increases my sense of well-being.
La Loca said…
Wonderful post! I recently saw a play with a group of friends. I remember thinking afterwards that although pricey, the experience was so worth it.

I'm striving to teach the "stuff doesn't make you happy" mantra to my 8-year-old daughter, the only child in a dual-income household and the only grandchild on both sides of the family. It's a tall order.
Belle de Ville said…
I believe that happiness comes from a life in balance and from moderation.
Consumption of goods and consumption of experience, ie travel, can add happiness to our lives. But so does raising a family, productive work and a network of friends.
I love to shop and to travel but I wouldn't want to do them all the time because I also get joy from simple things such as going to my job everyday, hanging out with my children, reading a good book and working in the garden with Mr. BHB.
In my humble opinion, happiness cannot be found in stuff...it's in the little things...
I agree with your points...I'd add giving back or volunteering to amp up the happiness meter.

I do allow myself treats...Hermes, cashmere, pearls but they are saved for and anticipated for months ahead!

Advertisers really want us to buy impulsively...and often...just say no!
Fuji said…
Ah, a post after my own heart. I was an avid consumer in my younger years, but once I turned 40 something changed. Perhaps partially a result of middle aged women being overlooked in marketing campaigns, but suddenly I developed resistance after years of coveting. I've unlocked the keys to happiness (for myself) and now know I need nothing more than health, family, friends and time. Throw in some charity, books, music and food and I'm in heaven.
Fuji said…
Perhaps related to our chronic search for happiness:

HB said…
A friend of mine calls that feeling of unfulfilled consumer angst "the wanties" which sums it up for me perfectly. Nice things are nice but they certainly aren't the same as fulfillment or a perfect moment laughing with the ones you love. As I grapple with a mid-life and mid-career crisis of sorts, it's even more important to prioritize time with the Mr and my other close relationships and to find ways of giving without cultivating the expectation of a tangible return.

Of potential value (it inspired me) - a good friend of mine sent this link (at the Guardian UK) to an excerpt of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace wherein he reminds us that we have the power of choice in how we manage our reactions to the world every day: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction
I agree that "stuff" doesn't make one happy, but an absence of decent clothing, food and shelter can make life miserable indeed.

Also, getting rid of the most environmentally and economically overwhelming "stuff", such as cars and large single-family housing, requires a degree of social organisation. Today I'm writing from Amsterdam, a prosperous place but where it is perfectly possible to live carfree, and where most families, even middle-class ones, live in pleasantly designed multi-household housing.

I disagree with Belle de Ville that participation in experience is necessarily just "consumption" to be counterpoised to productive work such as one's paid job and raising a family. Travel can mean just reposing on a beach, or getting sloshed at Club Med, but it can also involve culturally enriching experiences. And I don't feel any less productive or useful due to my just saying no to raising a family.
Unknown said…
A great philosophy. Less is more. I do try to limit what I buy and feel generally lighter now I have a smaller wardrobe. I find that I am more creative with what I have. I am a believer in re-cyling as much as possible and do a regular clear out when I either sell at a second hand shop or give to charity.
Demi-pointe said…
For me happiness is in relation to the level of the difficulty of the process of the consumption relative to the item. The ability to buy soap and toothpaste makes me feel secure. Going to a local shop and purchasing those simple items makes me feel happy I can take care of myself. If there is traffic then I feel miserable and annoyed I must shop. Then it is back to ordering soap and toothpaste online. Easy again and for that I am happy again.
For larger and more interesting items such as shoes,jewelry, etc. enjoying the process that goes into the challenge of finding them is part of the happiness of owning them. That is why I keep a few items that provide me with meaningful and happy memories of how they were procured (on that shopping trip with so and so; during that snowstorm, etc.)
For some,the constant change of mind and search for direction in their closet is the result of actually craving the challenge again and again - hence never feeling satisfied. Perhaps they need to create challenges in another area of their life so that the consuming one can rest.
When I find something I really enjoy using again again for many years the happiness is not a one shot deal - it is, perhaps, more like the happiness gotten from a theater outing, trip or other experiential consumption. It stays with me.
Duchesse said…
coffeeaddict: Your observation is so vivid and brought back the days when I "had to have" the latest albumn. Your new life sounds full and conscious at the same time.

Pseu: There's nothing like a health crisis to lend clarity (and I'm grateful to hear it's passed.) One of my friends who nearly died and fully recovered at 50 now accosts us and says, "Are you doing what you want to be doing?"

Jane W.: Kids are sitting ducks for that "more is more" message and we too had to do some curbing with the grandparents.

Belle: Connection to the natural world- gardening, hiking or just sitting in a park-always makes me tap into contentment too. Thanks for adding that.

hostess: I am continually amazed by how good volunteering/service feels.

Fuji: To me the greatest thing is the time and freedom to enjoy the modest pleasures you mention. And thanks for the link, nails many of the reasons we live without a TV, and it's good fun, too.

HB: Thank you for that link, and others will, too. "The wanties" is apt. I worry about being too consumer-focused w/ this blog, but others have reminded me, it sometimes helps wise choices.

lagatta: Thanks for the counterbalance. The better the social infrastructure, the better life is for everyone- and we do take clean water, for example,largely for granted.

I don't read Belle's comment the same as you; I took from it the notion that one can be happy by contributing, as well as by consuming. (Travel that requires paying to get there, whether to get sloshed on a beach or work alongside whomever is filling Mother Teresa's role these days, is still consumption.)

Chicatanyage: That lightness is such a pleasure. Comments like yours encouraged me a year or so ago and I'm sincerely grateful.

Demi-pointe: Thanks for the nuanced thought I have come to appreciate from you. The memories embedded in the object sometimes are more prized than the object. You have helped me understand why I "can't" get rid of some things I don't use very often.

The actual experience of consumption is far less compelling than it once was; perhaps a product of being older, or wearing a size that's not easily available in better clothes (14-16) or just being less interested in the latest shiny thing.
rb said…
Last night I went out for drinks and dinner at a hip restaurant with a group of friends, and then saw a play a friend of ours was starring in.

It was an expensive evening. I could have bought pearls with that money! But there was a moment during the play where I said to myself, 'this is what I always hoped my life would be like.'

I need to remember that next time I'm dropping the same amount at a clearance sale, where I'm usually buying items I have near-duplicates of at home.
Tiffany said…
I certainly agree about leisure - some of the best 'spending' we've ever done was on a 3-month trip to Peru and the US with the kids, our jaunt (just spouse and self) to NYC last year, even just our regular summer beach holidays. The pleasure starts with the planning, and keeps going long after the fact via photo albums and shared memories. Other things I spend money on that make me happy are having friends and family round for meals, concert tickets, my yoga classes ... This is why we happily pay for our kids to do activities they love (drama, sailing, etc) but they don't own computer consoles, expensive clothes, ridiculous phones, etc.
Rubiatonta said…
Yes, I am happier now. I do still consume, as it makes me happy to be well-dressed and comfortable in the various realms in which I move. I am also more mindful of when I'm shopping as a disengagement and try to keep that in the virtual realm. I think I'm closer to a wise balance in what I buy.

I am also willing to spend more money on skin and hair products that really work, as I've found it a better investment than cheap stuff that gets thrown away because it doesn't do what I want it to. No more "product graveyards."

But the thing that makes me the happiest, and that I've made more of a commitment to this year, is learning and personal growth. The money I spend to go away for a weekend workshop comes back to me in spades when I find myself applying what I've learned in the day-to-day.

And discovering that I am able to do things that I told myself I couldn't do is pure joy -- I was never so happy as when I took guitar lessons a few years ago and discovered that I can in fact read music and play an instrument! (And I'm thinking now that I want to find a teacher again.)
Susan Tiner said…
Very good points. I am frugal to a fault. We want to go to Paris next Spring, in 2012, but we also need to replace our roof. Paris vs roof. Hmm. Maybe it's ok to use the home equity line and still go to Paris. Waffling.

I agree with Pseu about the social network. That's more important than anything else.
Duchesse said…
Rubi: I'm all for learning and growth, never understood "you can't teach an old dog new tricks"! Today I just wanted to buy something, then I slowed down and realized I was reacting to a dramatic rise in temperature. And the back of my closet is full of lighter clothes.

Susan: My neighbour told me her approach, and I liked it: One year she focuses on the house, does the repairs and maintenance, the next year, she takes a trip. Of course there are always emergencies!
Anonymous said…
I am happier, but it has nothing to do with possessions. I am happier because all of my young adult children are standing on their own two feet. Five years ago that was a pretty constant worry.
Duchesse said…
Terri: I join you in that relief, pure relief. Always watchful, but it's so different once they find their footing.
LPC said…
Oh gosh. I have gotten kind of annoyed with all the happiness gibber gabber. Not yours, of course, just the general chatter. I prefer not to analyze it, just feel it.
Susan said…
Terri, Having our young adult children stand on their won is the ultimate happiness and contentment!!
Fuji said…
Ah, having young adult children it is the area where I still feel unease. They aren't quite out of the nest and I know I'll feel a boost of relief when I know they're up and out on their own two feet.
Duchesse said…
LPC: The articles, books etc. fill a need or respond to a lack in the culture. As North Americans become increasingly secular, questions once discussed in faith communities are taken up in the media. That's one reason, anyway.

Susan: And I would add, being there for elders, whether in one's family or community. This is what Pseu meant about the social network, I think.

Fuji: When my children were infants an older woman told me her son still delighted her at 30, with all the things he was learning. So that never ends, and though we always will be there for them, I enjoy their independence.
Cherie said…
Wonderful post. I try to cut down on my *stuff* as I think it makes me unhappy in the longrun. However, I need to learn to live without books...or at least cut down on them.
Duchesse said…
Cherie: Unless a book is deeply sentimental to me, I read and pass on immediately (unless work-related.) I enjoy knowing others will have the pleasure of reading them. My husband is the opposite, he must have every book he's acquired since age 4; thousands of books.
Books are about the only thing I hoard, but not things like novels. I do have to do another bookcase cull when I return home. Living in a room (not quite out of a suitcase because I did hang things up) is always strangely pleasant, though I miss my cat, Renzo.

I'm working in a library right now; I love being surrounded by books.

Learning new things is very good for the middle-aged or older brain. Language learning for one.

Access to clean water for drinking and washing, and to water for agriculture, are certainly problematic nowadays, and becoming a source of conflict in many countries.

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