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The saying goes that money can’t buy happiness.

Which is a nice idea, but not entirely true.

Money buys a lot of happiness: stability, better health care, a home in a safe neighborhood, an education and nutritious food, all which lead to greater happiness.

But the reality is, when it comes to money, most Americans don’t spend it in the right places to make us happy.

I was reminded of this while sorting through old files (something that does not bring me happiness.) I stumbled across a 2011 research article by Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson from the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The article, “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right,” asserts that the majority of people don’t make effective forecasts about their happiness future, and therefore misdirect where they put their money.

The good news is, with a little knowledge and application, we can start funneling our precious few dollars toward things that will bring lasting happiness.

First off, experiences trump physical objects in making us happy. We’ve heard this advice before, but few of us follow it. We fill our homes with plasma TVs and new shoes, which are lovely, but as the researchers point out, we adapt very quickly to new things. After a week, new shoes are now old shoes. The shiny light fixtures we’ve installed in the kitchen are static, unchangeable.

Experiences, however, are highly unpredictable, and it turns out that’s a positive.

Case in point: We just make a road trip to Utah, something we’ve done four or five times in the last decade. The trip is never the same. We make new memories, discover new routes and, yes, encounter new disasters each time. My kids will quickly forget the trinkets they bought at the Brigham Young University bookstore, but they will never forget the disastrous hotel I booked online with its mystery-meat breakfast bar.

And as the researchers write, “our experiences are more centrally connected with our identities.” Additionally, as our family road trip attests, “experiences are more likely to be shared with other people, and other people … are our greatest source of happiness.”

As a species, humans are the most social animals on Earth. So, as the researchers write, “almost anything we do to improve our connections with others tends to improve our happiness as well.”

When it comes to money, numerous studies across cultures have shown that spending for the betterment of others, prosocial spending, contributes to greater happiness. So does spending on a friend, spouse or other family member.

This is another area where, despite the research, most of us get it wrong. According to a study cited in the article, most people predicted that spending on themselves would bring greater happiness, when in fact the opposite is true.

One of the more surprising points of the article was the finding that many small pleasures are more rewarding than a few big ones.

There’s a famous scene in Beverly Cleary’s children’s book, “Ramona and Beezus,” where impetuous young Ramona comes upon a barrel of apples. Determining that the first bite of an apple always tastes the best, she hunkers down and takes a single bite out of every apple in the barrel.

While Ramona didn’t get it quite right, she was onto something. The initial pleasure really is the best. Hence the idea that spacing out pleasure into small increments will actually bring greater happiness.

A lot of this has to do, again, with adaptability. Humans are remarkable at adapting, but adaptation also reduces, as the researchers write, novelty, surprise, uncertainty and variability.



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