The Beatles once sang, "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love."
That may be true, but you should not underestimate what money can do: you can't buy love, but you sure can buy happiness, as five different studies have revealed.
Before we go into that, however, one must know that happiness has a dualistic nature. Like everything else in the world, it is ephemeral. The feeling may last as long as a person is alive, or it may only strike for a brief moment and then fade away until we find another source for it.
Happiness is also contradictory. Money can buy you happiness, but only to a certain extent, says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University who has been studying with his team a concept called the Easterlin paradox.
Experts like Gilovich have looked into the power of purchasing and its effects on people's happiness.
In the following studies, researchers examined the difference between buying tangible material things and buying life experiences, and how happiness comes into play.
1. Purchasing material things brings long-lasting comfort.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when compared with experiences, material goods have more lasting power and can be a constant source for happiness.
The study, featured in Social Psychological & Personality Science, found that although experiences provide intense emotions, these sensations eventually fade. Material goods, however, can remind a person about the joy they felt when they first bought it.
UBC researchers gave 67 participants $20 each to purchase anything. In the course of two weeks, each participant answered a series of questions five times a day, designed to assess their happiness levels. This allowed researchers to have insight on participants' real-time happiness.
Some of the purchased materials included coffee makers, portable speakers and reindeer leggings. Experiential purchases included hockey tickets, a weekend ski trip, and spa gift cards.
In the end, the group found that material things gave long-lasting comfort while experiential goods resulted in intense happiness that faded over time.
Aaron Weidman, the author of the study, said the purchasing decision greatly depends on what kind of happiness a person is seeking.
2. Buying experiences with your buddies strengthens your friendship.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by experts at the University of Toronto-Scarborough and University of Pennsylvania revealed that others prefer buying experiences because the memory of it can be something to look back on.
The team of researchers set up an experiment similar to that of UBC researchers. They randomly gave pairs of friends $10, and randomly assigned a gift giver and a receiver.
At the end of the exchange, the experts assessed participants' feelings about the gifts. They found that when receivers got gifts that led to new life experiences, they felt more connected to their giver whether or not they have the same interests.
If the first study is taken into account, gifts providing experiences may bring less happiness over time, but they nevertheless appear to bring people closer to one another than material gifts.
Cindy Chan, the study's lead author, said that material things remain on your shelf and depreciate as time passes by. Memories from experiences, on the other hand, maintain their novelty and vividness when looked back upon.
"Memories, every time you refer back to it, it's just as shiny and bright," said Chan.
3. Purchasing experiences is associated with the self.
Aside from social connections, a previous study found that purchasing life experiences is more likely to give happiness than material possessions because of intrapersonal reasons.
Gilovich and Dr. Travis Carter discovered that people tend to define themselves by their experiences. As compared to possessions, people consider experiential purchases closer to the self and are more likely to bring them up when narrating their life story.
"Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods," said Gilovich, adding that material stuff can be liked but they remain separate from you.
"In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences," he added.
As such, when talking to a person, researchers noticed that the conversation would often steer into a direction like this one: "What did you do this weekend?" "Well! I'm so glad you asked..." because people strongly identify with experiences.
Additionally, like the second study, Gilovich and Carter found that people tended to cling to memories of important experiences which make them feel satisfied.
4. People are happier when they talk about their experiences, including the bad ones.
Similar to the third study, this fourth study discovered a link between purchasing experiences and other people's conversational preferences.
Along with Amit Kumar, Gilovich found that most people derive pleasure from talking about their personal experiences both in prospect and in retrospect.
Gilovich said that people liked talking about experiences that negatively affected their own happiness, especially because something terrible that happened to us in the past can be turned into a funny story to tell at a party.
"We consume experiences directly with other people," said Gilovich. "And after they're gone, they're part of the stories that we tell to one another."
5. Waiting for experiences can make you act more kind.
Lastly, another study conducted by Gilovich and Kumar, along with Matthew A. Killingsworth, found that people preferred planned purchases like going to concerts because it is more exciting to wait for something than to receive it as soon as possible.
"There are actually instances of positivity when people are waiting for experiences," said Kumar.
For instance, Kumar said that people who go to concerts can talk to the things they look forward to while waiting in the concert line.
"We know that social interaction is one of the most important determinants of human happiness, so if people are talking with each other, being nice to one another in the line, it's going to be a lot more pleasant experience than if they're being mean to each other which is what's likely to happen when people are waiting for material goods," added Kumar.
What do you think? Will a vacation to the Caribbean give you more happiness than a brand new car? Let us know in the comments below.
Photo: Steven Depolo | Flickr