The Three Types of Happiness

Things can make people happier than experiences, a study finds, depending on the kind of happiness being measured

Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

Stuff has gotten a bad rap of late—mostly for its incompatibility with other lifestyle trends. It won’t fit in your tiny house. Marie Kondo thinks it should be eschewed entirely unless it sparks joy. And there won’t be any need for all your whisks and woks once you switch over to Soylent for sustenance.

Minimalism is hot, culturally, and for years, science has assured us that it was also the path to maximal bliss. The prevailing wisdom is that people who want the most happiness for their buck should buy experiences, not things. The idea is that the joy of an experience begins before it even starts, and continues when you look back on the fancy dinner/vacation/afternoon of LARPing fondly. Experiences provide, in other words, both more anticipatory happiness and afterglow happiness.

But a recent study complicates that picture, suggesting that sweaters and iPhones might make you just as happy, in a way, as cruises and concerts do. There is a third type of happiness—momentary happiness—and it tends to last longer with material goods because people use them for more time than they typically experience their experiences for.

For the study, published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers Aaron Weidman and Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia gave 67 participants $20 to spend on either an experiential or material purchase of their choice, and then to report one experiential or material gift they had recently received. Then they quizzed them about their happiness levels through text messages and questionnaires.

They found that the study subjects derived more frequent momentary happiness from material goods, but more intense momentary happiness from the experiences. In other words, they enjoyed their material goods on a greater number of occasions than they did their experiences, even though the happiness felt from the experiences was slightly more intense.

Weidman and Dunn

“Material purchases have an unsung advantage, in that they provide more frequent bouts of momentary happiness in the weeks after they are acquired,” Weidman and Dunn wrote.

This isn’t the only evidence suggesting that material possessions aren’t as bleak as they’re made out to be. This study somewhat echoes earlier work by Dunn and others finding that lots of small purchases make people happier than one big one. Because we psychologically adapt to the things we have, new things provide a positive jolt—which matters in the short run, if not in the long run. Five trips to H&M serve as tepid, but nevertheless welcome, distractions from the daily grind.

And another study found that things that help us do activities, like tennis rackets and musical instruments, can also generate happiness. But the difference between tennis rackets and jewelry is slight: Part of the fun of shopping, after all, is imagining the places you’ll go with the stuff you get.

So should you splurge on the latest iThing or on Hamilton tickets? It depends on whether you are “seeking an intense but fleeting form of happiness that is accompanied by a rosy afterglow,” Weidman and Dunn write, “or a more subtle, frequent form of happiness that will endure for weeks or months.”

As someone who had a flip phone for far longer than was hip, I can only add that my feelings toward my smart phone every day for the first year I owned it were nothing short of the praise-hands emoji.

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