The Stuff of Happiness

I can’t argue that having enough money can make life a little easier, especially when you are talking about the basics:  food, shelter, transportation, communication, medical care, education and even occasionally, a terrific new outfit that makes you feel really good.   But, if you are accumulating wealth just to buy more “stuff” maybe you should ask yourself, how much “stuff” do I really need?  More importantly, are you a slave to stuff?  Do you have a big mortgage, a shopping addiction, or a car lease that keeps you in a job or a situation that really isn’t working for you?    A recent New York Times article by Stephanie Rosenbloom takes an  in-depth look at what we know about   happiness and its relationship to durable and consumable goods.  Apparently, since the economic downturn, Americans are changing their spending habits, and researchers are starting to learn more about how these changes affect happiness. 

According to the article, new studies show that when people  spend money on experiences instead of material objects, it results in more happiness. It seems that spending money for an experience like concert tickets, vacation, or belly dancing classes produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old “stuff”.  Well, I question some of  these findings.  Is a beautiful piece of art a material good, or an experience?  Could the experience of driving your Audi sportscar bring you joy?  At the same time, I buy the basic research premise:  that spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps improve happiness.

The research of Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is specifically cited in the article.  His  research examines nine major categories of consumption  and dicovers  that leisure is the only consumption category positively related to happiness.  His definition of leisure includes vacations, entertainment, sports and sporting equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.  The study finds  that consumption of durables, charity, personal care, food, health care, vehicles, and housing are not significantly associated with happiness. DeLeire suggests that spending money on leisure activities appears to make people less lonely by increasing their social connectedness.

Rosenbloom  says academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel  good. Additionally, the article notes that waiting for something and working hard to get it makes it feel more valuable and stimulating; in other words, anticipation increases happiness.  

I find these concepts believable, including the following one: Researchers say that one of the reasons experiences gives us longer-lasting happiness than material goods is that we can reminisce about them and that that’s true even if the experience is mediocre. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, says, “Trips aren’t all perfect, but we remember them as perfect.”  Professor Lyubomirsky  has a research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

So what does this mean for you and me?  Are we confusing stuff with the stuff  of happiness?  If acquiring possessions keeps us from pursuing our dream careers or from spending more leisure time with friends and family, then maybe it’s time we consider some alternatives. 

Read the New York Times article here.

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Date: Thursday, 12. August 2010 21:17
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Career & Finance, Relationships, Self Actualization, Wellness

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