Proof Stuff Doesn’t Make Happy

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In the last couple of weeks, other than working on the van, I have been reading a lot about how how material goods (stuff or things) do not make us happy. Getting a new laptop, car, or huge TV are pretty normal financial goals for most of us. We focus on them and love them when we get them. We show them to our friends, talk about them, and generally bask in the fact that we have them. Unfortunately, these things, this stuff, has diminishing returns for our happiness; as the gloss fades, you get chocolate on the seats, and an update comes out so your is no longer the best and brightest.

Wanting these things is a totally natural thing; it seems to me that it has been part of human evolution. Achieving bigger, better, newer stuff has always made us happy, made us feel safe, and let us show off. To coin a phrase let’s call it “I-have-a-bigger-club-than-you syndrome.” The difference now is that there are just so many things available to us and available at the click of a button.

Research carried out by Michael I. Norton, professor of business administration in the marketing unit of Harvard Business School, and published in the book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending shows that: Yes, buying things makes you feel good in the moment; however, it is only a quick fix and has no lasting effect on your happiness. There is a bright side to the research, though, evidence of what does make us happy, and it is this:

Money spent on experiences makes you happy.

Experiences, particularly if they were shared with others, as I discussed in The Key to Happiness, get you the most bang for your buck at the time. They also pay dividends in future happiness, as you will always have the memories that are associated with them. It’s the reason you won’t throw away that ugly seashell diorama you bought on vacation at the beach or those shorts you wore while back packing around Europe, which you haven’t fit into since you graduated. It is not the memory of spending $10 on the diorama or $12 on the shorts, that makes you keep them it is the memories attached to them, the emotional tie you feel to those experiences, immortalized in those peculiar items, which stops you from chucking them out.

Once we understand our addiction to stuff, most people can throw off the chains pretty easily and begin to actually enjoy gaming the system, with our accumulation of wealth as a reward system instead of spending. However, if we don’t spend the time to realize what we are doing on auto-pilot, we carry on with our fixed behavior patterns, which is just what those advertisers want.

Norton’s research goes on to show that we are more likely to make these purchases when we are in a somber or unhappy mood. So here are 5 recommendations of how to stop buying this stuff you don’t really need and that won’t make you happy.

  1. Avoid the Situation: Don’t put yourself in situations where this stuff is available. Avoid the mall, and get what you need online so it arrives at your door and you’re not tempted by impulse purchases.
  2. Plan Ahead: If you do have to go to a mall, know what you want, get in, and get out. Don’t buy anything you didn’t plan to. Just wandering the aisles is a sure way to talk yourself into buying stuff you don’t need.
  3. Call Someone: Next time you want to buy something you don’t need call a friend and make a date to meet them. Then you can look forward to that instead of the new thing.
  4. Avoid Advertisements: This is tough, but the fewer advertisements you have in your life, the less you will want to buy. Advertisers know just how to make you feel good or bad enough about yourself to buy their stuff.
  5. Keep It Up: Once you start not buying stuff, track the money you have saved as a reward for not spending it. It feels surprisingly good once you get the hang of it. Don’t let people judge you for shows of wealth, let them judge you for having actual wealth.




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