C’mon Get Happy: Buy Time, Not Stuff

A new study conducted at Cornell University suggests that spending money on experiences (family vacation, massage, guitar lesson) rather than stuff (new flat screen TV, iPhone, set of china) actually can make consumers happier. A line graph would look like this: happiness resulting from spending on experiences increases over time, while happiness resulting from spending on things plummets over time, and can actually make a person less happy than they were to start.

One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that it’s easier, for example, for me to try to quantify and compare my level of enjoyment of a new TV to your level of enjoyment of your new TV than it is for me to compare the value I get out of a family vacation to what you got out of yours. Experiences are by nature unique – that’s where much of their value lies – whereas one can always agonize over other, better TV deals that might have been had. People are more likely to make quick, confident decisions about how to spend on experiences than on stuff - and more likely to be increasingly happy about those decisions over time.

At first glance, this seems like a sustainable notion – I’ll get more out of a self-fueled hike (or guided bird watching tour) than a natural resource and carbon-heavy new computer – but is it really? What if I fly from New York to Colorado for the hike? What if my idea of a great family vacation is Disney Land? Perhaps the study’s eco-takeaway is that we could all stand to take greater notice of that place on the spending spectrum where low-carbon and experience-buys overlap – a hike closer to home, a local music concert, a picnic in the park. Who knows, we might even wind up happier for it.

It feels a bit anti-American right now to suggest buying less stuff – goodness knows our government has tried to jump-start the stalled consumers in us all – but a simple walk in the woods could be just what the doctor ordered.

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