Actually, Some Material Goods Can Make You Happy

But which ones?
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It's been the refrain of behavioral economists and, in my case at least, my wise husband for years: Spend your money on experiences, not things. A vacation or a meal with friends will enrich your life; new shoes will quickly lose their charm.

That's true, but it's not the whole story, argue psychologists Darwin A. Guevarra and Ryan T. Howell in a new paper in the Journal of Consumer PsychologyNot all goods, they say, should be lumped together.

Here's the problem, as Guevarra and Howell see it: In many studies, participants are asked to think about material items as purchases made "in order to have," in contrast with experiences—purchases made "in order to do." This, they say, neglects a category of goods: those made in order to have experiences,  such as electronics, musical instruments, and sports and outdoors gear. Do such "experiential goods," as Guevarra and Howell call them, leave our well-being unimproved, as is the case with most goods, or do they contribute positively to our happiness?

In a series of experiments, Guevarra and Howell find that the latter is the case: experiential goods made people happier, just like the experiences themselves.

This might seem like a pedantic distinction, just a breaking down of two categories of purchases (goods and experiences) into three (pure goods, experiences, and the goods that enable you to have those experiences). But there is more to it: Understanding why some things make people happy and others don't reveals a little bit about the mechanics of human happiness and how to cultivate it. 

Begin by examining why experiences provide more happiness than material consumption. What is it about experiences? It's not the fact of having an experience per se but that experiences can "satisf[y] the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness." Talking to friends, mastering a skill, expressing oneself through art or writing—all of these provide a measure of fulfillment that merely owning a thing cannot.

Experiential goods fit in under this framework because they likewise can satisfy those same psychological needs. A musical instrument, for example, makes possible a sort of human happiness hat trick: Finely tune your skills, get the happiness of mastery (competence); play your heart out, get the happiness of self-expression (autonomy); jam with friends, get the happiness of connecting with others (relatedness).

"Spend your money on experiences, not things" remains a good basic rule. But it's possible to tweak it slightly to better reflect the drivers of human happiness: "Spend your money on competence, autonomy, and relatedness." That doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but it'll guide you wisely.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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