Cornell psychology professor Dr. Thomas Gilovich is addressing a question as old as capitalism: Can money buy happiness? And if so, is more happiness derived from objects or experiences?
One might assume that a dream car or house will deliver more happiness in the long run, while the high from skydiving or a week abroad gradually loses its glimmer.
But a recent study suggests the opposite. Gilovich asked subjects to assess the level of happiness they associated with major material and experiential purchases.
At first they ranked about the same, but the results changed over time. As subjects lived with their material acquisitions, they adapted to them—and the objects lost their luster. Experiences, on the other hand, became richer and more significant each time they were recalled or retold. That’s because, to quote Gilovich, “We are the sum total of our experiences.” We grow attached to them because they help to mold who we are.
This may explain another of Gilovich’s findings: Since experiences are unique to each individual, we’re less inclined to compare them with others—or “keep up with the Joneses,” as the saying goes.
This isn’t to say you should stop buying things that keep you comfortable and happy, or refrain from attaching emotional significance to a special object. Allocation is about balance, and a life can consist of vacations alone. But should you be lucky enough to have a big bonus check in hand, consider forgoing something you’ve always wanted to have for something you’ve always wanted to do. It could be an investment in the happiness of future you.