The Hard Facts: Investing in Happiness

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness.” (New York Times, “But Will It Make You Happy?” 8/7/2010)

Running a full-fledged friend search is a costly endeavor. Money I could otherwise be spending on purses and shoes is going toward dinners and improv classes. I’m trying to look at the entire quest as an investment—one of both time and money—in my future. Strong relationships are the key to happiness, and a lifetime of delight is worth far more than I could spend in one year. The cost of dragon rolls must be less than that of high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease, and those are only three of the myriad health risks associated with loneliness.

I was glad to read in Sunday’s New York Times that I’m onto something. According to this article (a worthwhile read whether you’re interested in friendship or not), money really can buy happiness. If you’re spending it correctly. Owning more stuff doesn’t do the trick (though my latest batch of Forever 21 outfits begs to differ), but buying experiences—vacations, concert tickets, classes—will guarantee a return on investment.

When I first graduated college and was learning how to navigate the world (still working on that one, clearly) a coworker told me about the budget she’d set herself. She allowed herself $20 a day for food, $100 a week for shopping. Or something like that. What I remember specifically is my confusion. “What about going out?” I asked her.

“What about it?”

“Don’t you need money for going out?”

“Oh, no. I don’t really like doing things. I like owning things.”

Huh? A new sweater would not keep her company. I pictured her sitting at home atop a pile of jeans and handbags, throwing them in the air with a “mwahaha” cackle.

When it comes to spending, a professor in the Times article found that “the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.” Not surprisingly, all of these encourage social interaction. This same professor even put a price tag on the most talked-about relationship: “A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly equivalent to the happiness boost one gets from marriage.” Amazing. He didn’t specify how much a good BFF was worth, but I’d venture it’s about the same.

I’m hoping to buy The One for less than 20 grand. But good to know she’s got black market value.

Which do you spend on more—objects or experiences? Do you notice a difference in the level of gratification you get from one over the other? In retrospect, what was the best money you ever spent?


Filed under The Hard Facts, The Search

22 responses to “The Hard Facts: Investing in Happiness

  1. wendy

    My thought is that money can’t actually buy happiness, but it sure can help to make a person feel happier. I LOVE spending money on experiences. Travel, restaurants, manicure/pedicure…those things make me feel happy 🙂 Even if just for the time spent doing them!

  2. hb

    The best money I ever spent was definitely on experiences. I’m still enjoying the memories and photos years after they happened: Trips with my family while I was growing up, Paris with my teenage children, Yellowstone with my husband and friends, Vegas family reunions, and of course my daughter’s wedding.

  3. Sam

    The best money I ever spent and am still paying it off is for my study abroad trip to Florence, Italy! Have so many memories as well as items I bought there. Would not change anything!

    • Laura

      I was going to say the same thing! My best money ever spent would be my study abroad experiences—in college, a 6-week backpack art and history tour across western Europe and in grad school, a summer in London. The former is still the best experience of my life and the memories are priceless. London was about immersing myself in a city that I loved. Still a great experience.

      If I knew when I paid my student loans that the money was paying that portion of my education, then I’d be happy to pay it (as compared to my normal begrudging attitude). Worth every bit of interest!

  4. Karen A.

    Even if travel is not an option, the experience is still the key to happiness for me. So I try to build experiences into my life on a regular basis: take classes, go the the guild meetings, spend time in the local park. Even if the destination is not as enticing as Paris (yes, I am jealous!), time invested in experiences offer long term returns. And the monetary investment can range from free to big bucks.

    An evening listening to a great band in a local park with friends – Free, Ten day trip to Japan – Priceless. And both events contribute to long term happiness.

    Thanks for another thoughtful column Rachel.

  5. I *think* I spend more on experiences like concerts, vacations, etc.. I guess I have never really thought about it, though… I do also buy more than my share of books, which is sort of like buying an experience, but it’s a solo one..

  6. Great post, Rachel. Even for those of us not on the search for a BFF, I think it serves as a reminder that experiences -with people- are important! Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve stopped spending a lot of money on clothes. I go shopping a couple times a year, buy necessities and move on. There is a part of me that is very envious of women with a high sense of style. I wish I cared. The reality is, I’d rather grab dinner with a girlfriend or be a season subscriber to the theater or go on vacation with my husband than I desire to be well-dressed. Glad to see the clothes on my back don’t determine my happiness factor.

  7. Alison

    Two birds, one stone: buying a new something to wear out with friends on the town….

    A thought-provoking, fascinating column. Thank you!

  8. It’s funny…my mom really likes owning things. Maybe because she grew up not having many nice things, I don’t know. Anyways, I’m totally not like that. I buy my clothes at Target and don’t wear jewelry, but don’t blink about dropping cash on a vacation or a day at the water park with the kids.

  9. Suzannah

    It is the same difference of giving a child a new toy, and sitting down and playing a game with a child. We are all seeking love and acceptance, we get that by spending time with others who care about us.

  10. Ana

    Excellent point Suzannah! So so true.
    This is a timely post for me—My husband and I decided to create a very detailed budget to track where the hell all our money is going, and where we would LIKE it to go. We started this project because we need to get our basement redone and realized we just don’t have the cash.
    At first I got all high & mighty deciding to omit happy hours, lunches out, dinners out, vacations etc… to try to save money. Then I realized how miserable that would make me…all of those experiences really are important, and give a more lasting satisfaction than the momentary thrill of buying and owning a new item. Usually.
    And a finished basement is just another room to clean.

    • Fanfan

      Well, personally, I think remodeling can be a very fulfilling experience. The new colors make me so so happy! And, I enjoy very much reading other people’s stories in interior magazines.

  11. Hmmm, good post Rachel. What if you mixed it together – like say I love to read and I love to buy books and magazines. Then I spend hours curled up enjoying them…are they things or experiences?? Plus I love to cook, so I like to buy lots of cool spices and nice quality ingredients and cooking tools, which all add to my experience (wine really helps my cooking experience too!). So maybe it’s how you look at it or what you actually ‘get out of your things’, you know?

  12. I’ve noticed in the past couple years I definitely spend more on experiences than objects. Having moved to a new city/state myself, it’s the only way I’ve been able to form new friendships. A new skirt hasn’t made anyone want to be friends with me, but a shared pitcher of local ale can definitely form some lasting bonds.

    Also, I just thought I’d mention: I LOVE your blog.

  13. Amalia

    Couldn’t agree more. Tonight I went to sandal & salsa party or so I thought I thought you were to wear a pair of plain sandals and then they are selling bling to jazz them up. I expected to have to buy something and then eat appetizers for dinner. Food was great and although I would never want any of the items the selling, I left after purchasing $75 of costume jewelry. Sure it was fun to get out the house and talk with others. The host and I have said lets get together and go out sometime. Although it had never happened maybe now it will since I went to her party. Plus a new friend who has moved to the state I have invited her to every home show like this that my friends have since she doesn’t know many people here. Each little outing gives me time to socialize with friends and if I buy things along the way I’ll always have a quick gift for someone laying around the house.

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