How to be Happier

Jan 30, 2012 by

Some would call me a minimalist. I like to own as little as possible. I may have been in my 30s before I owned more than two table settings. I lived most of 1991 happily and without wanting anything from what I could neatly pack in the trunk of a Volkswagen Jetta. If a dresser drawer won’t close easily, I donate a box of clothing. I get anxious amidst a lot of stuff. In 2009, we self-moved across a continent and downsized into a home with roughly half the living space. Before the day came to pack the truck, I rid myself of perhaps one-third of my, some would say already scanty, personal belongings, and I still feel relief reflecting on all the stuff we sold, gave away, or junked. I’ve missed none of it, except my vintage large Advent speakers. Though sparseness causes feelings of insecurity for my wife, I think she doesn’t much miss anything either.

Does it make one happier to do or to have?

My anti-stuff predisposition probably caused my attention to be caught by a compelling article by Prof. Barry Schwartz in The Daily Beast about the relationships among having things, doing things, and happiness. Titled “Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less,” Mr. Schwartz begins the article by asking the questions:

“How much stuff is enough stuff? At what point should we worry a bit less about getting and spending and devote more time and energy to other things?”

Mr. Schwartz says psychologists understand pretty well what makes people happy, and for the most part, it isn’t stuff:

“People thrive when they have a network of close relations to others and when they have meaningful work that they find engaging. Stuff just doesn’t do it. And one major reason stuff doesn’t do it is a pervasive phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.

You know how the initial thrill of first owning something—a gadget, a car—that you’ve long wanted quickly subsides? That’s “hedonic adaptation.” As Mr. Schwartz says, we get used to things. Moreover, though hedonic adaptation happens over and over in our lives, somehow “…we never seem to learn to anticipate it. The result is that even when we get exactly what we want, we often end up disappointed.”

Mr. Schwartz notes that psychologists have learned that “most of us get more pleasure out of doing than out of having.”

“In reflecting on the past or contemplating the future, people are happier when they have experiences on their minds than when they have things on their minds. And the higher a person’s income is, the bigger the disparity between the joys of doing and the joys of having. Moreover, we don’t adapt to doing to the same degree that we adapt to having. The museum trip, the hike, the bike ride in the hills, the informal dinner with friends keep satisfying long after the Mercedes has stopped providing a thrill. And a great thing about at least some “doing” is that it doesn’t cost much money.”

Mr. Schwartz further reports that “…there is reliable research indicating that people who…have what we might call materialist values are less satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. This is true even of materialists who are financially successful.”

Have you experienced hedonic adaptation after a purchase? And do you tend to spend money and time mostly on doing or having?

  • http://twitter.com/moneyqanda Money Q&A

    I definitley think that spending your money on experiences like you mention instead of physical items is the way to having happy and fulfilling life.

  • Kelly

    While I’m not in complete agreement, I can appreciate the gist of the message. Nonetheless, on the topic of simplicity, I give you the following excerpt from the script of the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotapes:

    GRAHAM
    I wish I didn’t have to live someplace.

    JOHN
    (laughs)
    What do you mean?

    Graham thinks a moment, then puts his keyring with its single key onto the table.

    GRAHAM
    Well, see, right now I have this one key, and I really like that.
    Everything I own is in my car. If I get an apartment, that’s two
    keys. If I get a job, maybe I have to open and close once in
    awhile, that’s more keys. Or I buy some stuff and I’m worried
    about getting ripped off, so I get some locks, and that’s more
    keys. I just really like having the one key. It’s clean, you know?

    • Money Counselor

      Thanks Kelly. I have to confess: I really identify with Graham! I get (because I do it myself) the number-of-keys marker as an indicator of my life’s simplicity. The more keys, the more responsibilities and things to think about and keep track of! Two keys is where I like to be.

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  • Prudence Debtfree

    I tend to spend on doing rather than having. The thing is, some of the things I’d love to do (like travel and eating at restaurants) are very expensive. Hmmm . . .

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