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Opinion: 'Can money buy you happiness? Not if you're spending it the wrong way'

Gill Hasson says that you should spend your money on experiences, not things.

Gill Hasson

SOME SMALL PLEASURES are free, some are cheap, and some are expensive. The big question is, can money buy you happiness?

We’ve all been told that money can’t buy happiness but many studies have shown that’s not really true; money can buy you happiness.

You don’t, though, need a fortune before money can buy you happiness. What’s important is knowing what to spend your money on; knowing how to spend it in ways that are more likely to make you happy.

In 2011, in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, Professor Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues published a paper based on their review of research into how money does and doesn’t make us happy. The title of the paper?

If money doesn’t make you happy then you probably aren’t spending it right.

They suggest that: “Money is an opportunity (for happiness) that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don’t”. Professor Dunn and her colleagues’ key finding was that rather than spend money on things in the hope they’ll make us happy, we should spend it on experiences.

Buy experiences instead of things

In their report, Professor Dunn and her colleagues explain that the type of experiences – the activities you spend your money on – aren’t that important; it could be something simple and inexpensive such as doing a jigsaw or taking a bus ride to the country or the coast, or it could be something more costly – a flying lesson or a day at a spa.

As far as happiness is concerned, what’s most important about any activity you engage in is that you are engaged in the activity; you’re interested and absorbed in the experience.

In other words, you experience ‘Flow’. You will have experienced Flow whenever you’ve become so absorbed in what you’re doing that time passed without you noticing. You were doing something that was enjoyable and kept you focused and engaged. It was as if a water current was carrying you along, continuously and smoothly.

Just as with Aristotle’s eudaimonic happiness, when you’re involved in an activity that gives you a sense of Flow, you’re doing something that’s meaningful; there’s a purpose and an aim to what you’re doing.

Even though there may be an element of challenge to the activity, it’s enjoyable, there’s progression, and it maintains your interest. You feel fulfilled. You’re happy.

Experiences can last longer than things

When it comes to spending money in order to be happy, you might think that it’s better to spend it on things rather than activities and experiences because things last longer.

Surely, you might think, the money spent on, for example, a great new pair of shoes is money better spent towards your happiness than money spent on an experience such as a day out?

An experience, you could argue, is over after a few hours or days, whereas a lovely new pair of shoes can last you a lot longer.

But after the initial thrill of buying something – lovely new shoes, a super new computer, a smartphone, a fab new sofa – the excitement soon wears off. This is because you get used to it.

The great new shoes become just another pair of shoes that you own. The computer and smartphone become things you need for work and your daily life. And the fab new sofa soon just becomes the place where you sit and watch TV; quite literally, it becomes part of the furniture – something so familiar that you no longer notice it.

Of course, a sofa, phone, computer, and lovely shoes are all useful, but after a while, you don’t think of those things in the same excited way as you did when you first owned them.

In contrast, an experience can provide you with happy memories long after the shoes and sofa have worn out and the phone and computer have stopped working.

Certainly, both experiences and things provide the positive feelings that come with looking forward to them. But once they’re over, you’re more likely to relive experiences – a picnic with friends, hot air ballooning, learning to cook Japanese food, a day at the beach, tea at The Ritz, tank driving – than you are likely to recall the things you bought in the past.

And even the disappointing and the disastrous days out usually make for a funny story in the retelling, whereas a disappointing or disastrous purchase always remains just that; a disappointing purchase.

This is an edited extract from Happiness: How to get into the habit of being happy, by Gill Hasson (Capstone, August 2018). 

Gill Hasson is a careers coach with over 20 years’ experience in the areas of personal and career development. She is also a teacher for mental health organisations, and delivers training for adult education organizations, voluntary and business organisations and the public sector. She is the bestselling author of a number of books on personal wellbeing, including Mindfulness, How To Deal With Difficult People, Emotional Intelligence, Overcoming Anxiety, Positive Thinking, and Kindness.

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