Skip to main content

Buying Happiness? Here’s How

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Michael Gutter, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Money doesn’t buy happiness…or does it?

Although this is a common saying and certainly a strongly held value for many of us, research findings on the issue are a bit more complicated! In fact, studies suggest that money does buy some happiness.

Yet research also finds that this is typically only true up to a certain level of wealth, after which this effect levels off. And one recent study showed that wealthier people have a harder time enjoying simple things, like a piece of good chocolate.

Money = Security

However, being financially comfortable can certainly make us happier by helping us meet crucial needs, like adequate food, shelter, and health care. It can also allow us to avoid the stress associated with struggling to make ends meet. Being financially comfortable also gives us the opportunity to purchase unnecessary, but enjoyable items—like the aforementioned chocolate or a vacation to recharge our batteries.

But do we generally tend to spend our “extra” money in ways that best maximize our happiness? Experts say no. Fortunately for us, they’ve actually done research on how to accomplish this. A review of this topic published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology has some tips.

Spend on Experiences

One key principle for maximizing happiness when spending money is to buy experiences, rather than objects. Various studies suggest that this happiness is longer-lasting, because it’s more enjoyable to reflect on an experience than a thing. We also don’t “get used to” experiences as easily as we get used to new objects. And new experiences help us live in the moment (which we like) and to deepen our connections with those who join us at these moments.

Spend on Others

A second tip is simply to spend money on other people! Whether this entails donating to charity or buying gifts for those we love, most of us know this can make us feel good. Indeed, reward centers in our brains actually light up when we give to others, and we feel happy when we reflect on times that we did so.

Little Luxuries

Another research-backed suggestion is to spend on many small, fun items or experiences (like that chocolate again!) instead of fewer higher-ticket items, like a single expensive sofa. It seems that frequent “small doses” of enjoyable purchases provide more bang for our buck—in part because they also give us more variety.

Take Time to Wait

One last tip from this extensive review: delay your gratification and take time to enjoy the anticipation instead. Though our 24-hour instant-fix shopping culture can make this one difficult, it seems that we enjoy our purchases more when we have to wait for them. In fact, waiting is actually part of the fun.

Just before I wrote this article, I was debating whether or not to go for an experiential gift for my daughter’s birthday. With this information in my back pocket, I gladly decided on the “experience” present, and am looking forward to it with excitement. I hope these tips will help you and your family to get more enjoyment out of the money you spend. Though money certainly isn’t the only key to happiness, it’s nice to know some ways to increase the satisfaction we get when we spend it.

Photo Credits: Purestock/Thinkstock


Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., &  Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right. Journal of Consumer Pyschology, 21, 115-125. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.02.002