Can Money Buy Happiness?

by Chris Bodenner

Drake Bennett explores the age-old question. He basically says yes, but only when we buy memories, not things:

Taking a friend to lunch, it turns out, makes us happier than buying a new outfit. Splurging on a vacation makes us happy in a way that splurging on a car may not. [Scientists] are beginning to offer an intriguing explanation for the poor wealth-to-happiness exchange rate: The problem isn't money, it's us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people.

Jonah Lehrer jumps in:

The answer, I think, has to do with a fundamental feature of neurons: habituation. When sensory cells are exposed to the same stimulus over and over again, they quickly get bored and stop firing. (That, for instance, is why you don't feel your underwear.) This makes sense: the brain is an efficient organ, most interested in the novel and new. If we paid attention to everything, we'd quickly be overwhelmed by the intensity of reality. Unfortunately, the same logic applies to material objects. When you buy a shiny new Rolex watch, that watch might make you happy for a few days, or maybe even a week. Before long, however, that expensive piece of jewelery becomes just another shiny metal object - your pleasure neurons have habituated to the luxury good.

I couldn't agree more that experiences are far more valuable than goods. Though what if the problem is not "ourselves over others," but just the opposite: we value people too much. Specifically, we overvalue strangers and acquaintances, and purchase things to win their approval. People buy Rolexes and other expensive jewelry not to gaze at them, but to flash them for others. And we usually buy that new outfit because the old one is soo last year. Experiences, on the other hand, are purchased to please to the individual (and the loved ones sharing them). Sure, people often brag about vacations, name drop restaurants, or pontificate about a film, but the prime motivation is usually the self. In fact, the experience, through memory, becomes part of the self - something "things" can't do.

Patrick also adds two cents: "But there are material goods that facilitate better experiences. Conor's discussion this week of Yelp on the iPhone is a good example."

Personally, my laptop is the root of happiness. Patrick's just died; pray for him.