How to Buy Happiness

Most believe that happiness is one of the primary purposes of life, but there are varied theories on how to experience the most happiness. This topic is intriguing to me, so I did a little research into various beliefs about happiness. I was fascinated by the findings of a psychologist named Thomas Gilovich, who found that individuals who spend money on experiences instead of material possessions experience greater happiness for longer periods of time.

This idea may run counter to what we expect since the material possessions can last longer, but Dr. Gilovich explains that we adapt to the things around us so they bring us less and less happiness as time goes on. And there is always that individual or that family who has something nicer or bigger or better than us so when we compare ourselves to what others have, it can makes us feel worse about ourselves and our circumstances.

I felt this topic might be relevant around the holiday season, because there is so much emphasis on gift giving; yet, it doesn’t seem that giving physical gifts brings the most happiness. I wonder what kind of experience we might have if we took the money we typically spend on physical presents this year and spend that money on an experience we could enjoy with those we love. You could plan a family trip to a place you’ve never visited. You could go to a concert or a show you’ve never seen. Or you could watch a favorite sports team in a stadium you’ve never been to. The idea is to invest in memories, not in materials.

As I reflect back to my childhood, I cannot remember very many toys or gifts I received, but I do remember the trips we took to watch the BYU football team as they played in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. I remember going to Sea World and Disneyland. I remember swimming in December which I thought was so cool because it was snowing back in Orem where we lived. As I have gotten older, I am so glad my parents chose to give us these vacations for Christmas presents because they are memories I will cherish forever.

So, what is it about buying experiences, rather than buying things, that brings longer lasting and deeper happiness? I truly believe it is because experiences help us connect with those we love. And when we draw to the end of our lives, I don’t think any one of us will be concerned about the car we drove or the type of shoes we wore. We will be care about the people we experienced life with. We will cherish the memories. We will review pictures that have captured experiences we had with those we love, not pictures of the watch or phone we received for Christmas. We will reflect on the shared experiences we had with those we love. So this holiday season, you may want to think twice before you rush to purchase “stuff” for your friends and families. Instead, consider spending your money on something you can experience together. You can then experience the lasting and deep happiness that comes from feeling connected to someone you love.


Chad Olson, LMFT, is the Clinical Director of the St. George Center for Couples & Families,