Just over a month ago Thom and I bought ourselves two electric bikes. For several years we talked about doing it, but I kept saying no. I knew the minute I got on one, I would love it. Instead we regularly rode our 7-speed beach cruisers frequently until finally I asked myself, “What am I waiting for?” Thom needed no encouragement—in fact, he had been researching peddle-assist e-bikes for months. He knew what kind would best suit us, which bikes offered the best value for the money, and where to buy them. All it took was the decision to do it. As predicted, the minute I got on the bike and cruised around the parking lot at the bike store, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Ever since, after dozens of rides, I’m the first to admit that yes, sometimes money can buy happiness. Of course, as the saying goes, you need to know where to shop. And definitely you need to know what to buy!
Now I’m the first person to say that money doesn’t automatically make you happy. In fact, I have written a number of articles saying that research shows that once you make enough—usually about $75,000—your overall life happiness does not increase. That amount, $75,000, is what it supposedly takes to cover most of a family’s living expenses like decent food, shelter, good health and a safe and comfortable place to live. But once you start making more money than that, those added dollars seldom increase your pleasure in proportion. There are a number of reasons for that like the fact that once you start spending more, you likely have more stress in maintaining that new amount and in handling what you’ve bought .
A good example is the idea that once you get a substantial raise you can afford to buy a bigger and/or better house. We might dream of a house that hits all of our emotional buttons, but the reality of that house can be quite different. Say you’d love to own a house on a lake in a remote little town far from the maddening crowds. The trouble with that is not only are you likely to have spent a higher amount of your income to buy it, (you want better right?) but now your commute to work is twice as long. You’ll also have to deal with weather related issues (mold, water damage?) and what about raking the leaves from all those trees? Then don’t forget about higher insurance to cover it in case of flooding and/or fire. The list of unconsidered “issues” rises exponentially. Remember, what you own, owns you to a degree.
Plus, you’ll also become aware of the other houses on the lake that are bigger and more fantastic than yours. When we compare ourselves to others who have more or better, we usually become less happy. So, even when buying your dream, there are often unknown considerations and costs. The truth is, we routinely overestimate the pleasure we will get from having something bigger and better.
Another big reason why it has been proven that money doesn’t buy happiness is because we, as human beings, are seldom satisfied for long. The more we get, the more we want. It appears to be part of our evolutionary biology to adapt to whatever or wherever we find ourselves—so in order to keep our engagement up we need something more to take its place. Because of that adaptability, we can recover from wars, economic loss and yes, even a pandemic because it is natural for us to adapt and recover. However, when it comes to buying things, we enjoy that new wonderful thing for a while and then quickly adapt and grow accustomed to it. This is the primary reason that researchers now suggest that we spend our money on experiences rather than “stuff.”
So why does an experience seem to have a higher happiness quotient? It seems that if we spend money doing something pleasant (either for ourselves or someone else) then we have a story in our minds about the experience that is very malleable. In other words, we can keep making that story/memory better and better as time goes by and we actually do—regardless of whether we remember all the true details of that experience. On the other hand, if you buy a wonderful new car, as months go by and the luster has gone, all you have is the tangible reality of a used car.
So according to recent research, a real key to getting happiness from the money we spend on purchases is knowing how to spend the money you currently have (and not more!) and figuring out ways to keep the experience of it making you happy. On top of that, one of the most surprising new developments is that we should begin to plan our purchases around our personality. That’s right. Doesn’t it make sense that different types of people will get less or more long-lasting pleasure from some experiences or even things, rather than from others?
In 2016 a study was done by Sandra C. Matz, Joe J. Gladstone, and David Stillwell. They discovered that when matching our purchases with our personality type (based upon the popular Big Five Model*) we each will experience a greater (or lesser) degree of happiness. Matz, et al, explain the Big Five Model as: “…five personality traits of openness to experience (artistic vs. conservative), conscientiousness (self-controlled vs. easygoing), extraversion (outgoing vs. reserved), agreeableness (compassionate vs. antagonistic), and neuroticism (emotionally unstable vs. stable).” In other words, whatever purchases will make you happiest depends upon where you fall on the spectrum of each of these categories.
For example, if you are highly introverted person who is very conscientious, buying and reading a book you’ve craved while sitting before a fireplace at home will probably make you very happy. Meanwhile, to an extrovert who loves travel and getting together with friends at a bar or restaurant, being stuck at home with a book might seem like torture. If you rate heavily as a compassionate person who loves helping others, then donating money to a cause you believe in is critical to your happiness. On the other hand, a conservative person who worries about having enough to retire might be so concerned that they spend a big portion of their financial resources on health and life insurance—and those purchases comforts them and gives them happiness.
What it all boils down to is that we are all different. Sure, the big news might be that experiences are usually better than material items. But again, that depends on the person and the story they spin about the purchase. By knowing our ourselves and our values, and by considering our individual personalities, it is likely possible to make purchasing choices that will not only make us happier, but that will ensure the happiness lasts longer.
I also uncovered a few other tips for finding happiness. They are:
1) Professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University says that people define what is and isn’t an experience differently. He suspects that the people who are happiest are those who are best at concocting experiences out of everything they spend money on whether it’s dancing lessons, hiking boots or an e-bike.
2) Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, has found that (1) happy people don’t waste time dwelling on unpleasant things. (2) They tend to interpret ambiguous events in positive ways. And perhaps most tellingly, (3) they aren’t bothered by the successes of others. Lyubomirsky explained that when she asked less-happy people whom they compared themselves with, “they went on and on.” Then she added, “The happy people didn’t know what we were talking about.” In other words, happy people don’t spend a lot of time on unpleasant social comparisons.
3) Try counting your blessings. Literally. In a series of studies, psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami found that those who did exercises to cultivate feelings of gratitude, such as keeping weekly journals, ended up feeling happier, healthier, more energetic and more optimistic than those who didn’t.
So, getting back to my new e-bike. I know from personality tests that riding a bike for pleasure and exercise fits my personality very well and provides me with a high degree of what I call the fun-factor. Sure, it cost a significant amount of money and I’m grateful that it was an easy expense for my family. Other personality types would likely yawn, think I’ve wasted my money, and/or find far better uses for their money. I’m also aware that I need to continue to create experiences with my e-bike in order to maintain my happiness level. If it just sits in the garage it will become just another “possession” and I’ll be out looking for another way to achieve that sensation of happiness. But again, we are all different in many ways and how I do that will be uniquely me.
I realize that during the current circumstances facing our world, our country and our lives right now, the topic of happiness might seem frivolous. But I am convinced that people who are emotionally balanced in most ways are far better able to be a positive force in the world. Staying unhappy, worried and fearful seldom leads to creating a life that any of us wants to embrace.
So, just like with the idea of rightsizing, there is no one way to do many things that lead to a SMART Life. We are all challenged to find what works best for each of us, and then do our best to head in that direction. Hopefully your path will lead you to finding how to spend your resources in a way that brings you and those you love the best possible outcome.
*Curious about the Big Five Model? Here’s a link to a free test.