By JACK HOUGH
If money can> buy health and leisure and banish worry and toil, why is the effect of money on happiness so weak in studies? Simple: Most people are bad at spending, according to a paper published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Happiness can be a squishy field of study, relying as it does on subjects to know when their inner sun is shining (or on brain scans and cortisol levels, which can be just as ambiguous). Gather enough hazy clues, however, and together they tell a reliable story. A trio of researchers -- Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia, Daniel Gilbert of Harvard and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia -- has done just that in their study of studies. The evidence leads them to an eight-step prescription for shoppers seeking smiles.
1. Take the trip to Argentina. Get another year out of the Honda.
Buy experiences instead of things, the authors write. In broad surveys of past spending as well as experiments, subjects overwhelmingly reported that they derived more happiness from things they did than things they own. One reason might be that experiences focus the mind on the present. "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind," the authors write. Another is that people seem to frequently revisit activities through their memories but are quick to adapt to -- and fall out of love with -- new stuff.
2. Help others (for selfish reasons).
Don't do it because you're a good person. Do it because it makes you feel good. That's an evolved response. It's what makes humans one of a few animals with highly complex social networks and the only one that includes unrelated members in its networks. (In your face, termites.) Almost anything we do to improve our connections with others improves our happiness, the authors write.
3. Upgrade your underwear, not your entertainment system.
One problem with material possessions, again, is that buyers are too quick to adapt to them. A solution is to focus on many small items rather than one big one. The same can be said of experiences (assuming the right underwear doesn't also qualify as an experience). Studies show that the frequency of pleasure is more closely related to happiness than the intensity. Buy the mini muffin. Golf nine holes. Take a day trip.
4. Go easy on insurance.
"This is the one I'm least convinced of," says co-author Dunn, who isn't including it in a forthcoming book. The idea is that if people are quick to adapt to pleasant things, they're also quick to adapt to unpleasant ones. That smashed laptop won't ruin your life, so don't get the protection plan. "But it's not clear to me whether the peace of mind makes some people happier," says Dunn. (As I've opined elsewhere, insurance is overpriced by definition. Think of it as the penalty you pay for not having enough savings to cover a catastrophic loss, and buy only what you need.)
5. Save for the scuba lessons. Then pay cash.
Credit cards, car loans and even mortgages allow people to consume now and pay later. The price is interest -- and mounting debt for the incautious -- so there's a financial argument to be made for saving up and paying cash whenever possible. But there's a happiness argument, too. Consumers who buy right away on credit rob themselves of a free source of enjoyment: anticipation. People are prone to a decision error called future anhedonia, or the belief that a pleasure delayed won't be as intense as one experienced in the present. The opposite, if anything, is true. Delayed pleasures are just as intense, and consumers accrue additional pleasure by looking forward to them. Think of it as "compound happiness" interest.
6. Think unhappy thoughts before spending.
Some purchases have ripple effects. Boats need docking. Lakeside cottages mean getting to know the local mosquitoes. A budget trip to Fiji might include 20 hours sitting in coach. Each way. Many buyers fail to consider such minor hassles, and maximizing happiness depends greatly on stringing together fewer minor hassles and more tiny joys. Also, ownership of the boat and cottage are less important than what you do with them. Fantasize a bit about your first day of ownership, sure, but then spend some time thinking about the 300th day.
7. Don't shop too carefully.
There's anticipation and there's obsession. The problem with spending weeks scouring camera-nerd websites before buying is that you'll wake up with cold sweats shouting about a model's lack of ability to export files in RAW format while losing site of things that matter more, like whether it's quick enough to catch your kid giggling before a finger goes up her nostril. Focus on a couple of features that matter more than the rest. Buy the small house with good light in the nice neighborhood even if it doesn't have the granite countertops.
You're special and all, but one of the best predictors of whether something will bring you happiness is whether it has brought happiness to others. Give your high cinematic standards a rest for the evening and see the blockbuster, already.