The Way to Buy Happiness

Why it’s best to invest in frequent doses of small, nice things

Illustration: Dora Godfrey/Medium

We’ve all heard the maxim that money can’t buy happiness. But what if it sort of can? Or at least a little smidge of happiness? Or think of it this way: Let’s say you’ve found yourself with a bit of extra money. What could you do with it to have the biggest impact on your daily life?

The good news is that money really can make life better. The bad news is that we tend not to take human psychology into account as we make our money decisions. Figure out how to spend it strategically, though, and you can buy a lot of well-being for very little money out the door.

Research on happiness has repeatedly found that we quickly get used to things. While some modern research has undercut a classic study claiming that lottery winners weren’t significantly happier a few years after winning, other scholarship still supports the idea of a happiness set point that is partly genetic. Psychologists (and economists) call this tendency the “hedonic treadmill” — the idea that we’re constantly chasing the pleasure of the newest thing. If you never go out to eat, a suburban chain restaurant can be blissful. If you go out weekly, you will be less impressed.

And because we get used to things, it’s hard to buy happiness by purchasing big-ticket items. A flashy car will make you smile when you buy it, but it is still the same car six months later, and by then the novelty — and the accompanying joy — will have worn off. And since you can’t exactly buy a new car whenever you need a boost, it’s likely not the most impactful purchase, happiness-wise. In a 2010 paper surveying a number of experiments, researchers concluded: “As long as money is limited by its failure to grow on trees, we may be better off devoting our finite financial resources to purchasing frequent doses of lovely things rather than infrequent doses of lovelier things.” Indeed, they noted, “across many different domains, happiness is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive affective experiences.”

So how can we give ourselves lots of jolts of happiness from small, lovely things? One of the best ways to put this philosophy into practice is to look for ways to upgrade everyday objects or experiences.

First, think about what you do most days. Look through your schedule, and make a list of the constants. We are largely creatures of habit: We wake up and shower the same way each day, we wear similar clothes, we use the same work tools, we eat similar foods, we do the same chores.

As you look at this list, think about whether any of these activities could be transformed with a little extra capital. I’m not talking about much. For example, buying a luxurious $15 bottle of shampoo instead of a $3 one can make showering a treat. Say the bottle will last three months. That’s only $4 extra a month. You might have this amount in change sitting in random drawers around the house.

Or, for another example: Do you make your coffee at home? Good for you. Buy the best coffee your grocery store offers. The price per day is only a few extra cents — still much cheaper than those coffee shop lattes often (unfairly) blamed for financial distress. But really good coffee on a bleary morning can feel priceless. Bonus: Find a mug that feels good in your hand. You don’t have to use the free mug you got at a conference! When it’s time to wash that lovely mug, know that high-end, scented dish soap can make doing the dishes feel more like aromatherapy, and less like a chore.

Your everyday leisure activities can benefit from an upgrade, as well. We often waste time scrolling around online because there’s nothing more obviously appealing to do. Spring for that book you’d like to read, or a challenging jigsaw puzzle, or to download that movie you’re dying to watch, and you will enjoy that time after the kids go to bed so much more.

To be sure, you can take this philosophy too far. Some upgrades can get pricey — two swanky bottles of wine a week could, in fact, equal a new car payment. You know yourself. If you’re already prone to buying the best of everything, then the marginal extra benefit of new upgrades will be small. But if you’re the sort of frugal, responsible person who reads productivity columns, I’m guessing that you’re not profligate. Choosing to designate, say, $50 to $100/month for elevating the everyday might buy you a lot of happiness. Or at least a different craft beer every Tuesday. Novelty is a new adventure every time.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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