A man is talking to a small boy. “What is something that is slow?” he asks. The boy pauses, then replies, “My Grandma is slow.” Sounds reasonable.

“Would you like it better if she was fast?” the man inquires. “I’ll bet she would like it if she was fast,” the boy counters, voicing a common wish of both the elderly and those who drive behind them.

“Maybe give her some turbo-boosters,” the man suggests. This sounds shockingly close to suggesting we dose granny with crank or speed, which I am firmly against. Luckily the boy has a much better suggestion: “Tape a cheetah to her back.” Clearly he read this earlier post, which revealed that cheetahs are the second fastest thing in the universe. Also this plan will require far more tape than he thinks. I hope his grandmother is a cat person.

This ad (for cell service) concludes with a simple claim: “It’s not complicated: faster is better,” and as someone old enough to remember computers powered by a hamster in a wheel, and brick phones, and internet connections that traveled over a string between two tin cans, I concur. So let me just suggest this to you: all things being equal, it’s better to spend your money on things that provide MORE happiness than on things that provide LESS happiness. It’s not complicated.

Here’s today’s question: which things that you buy deliver less happiness? The short answer is, most of them. Here are several truths from the guys in the lab coats that expand on this answer.

  1. How much you make is less important to your happiness than how you spend what you make. In fact, once you reach a certain (surprisingly low) level of income, more income does not lead to more happiness. But all along the way, spending choices do impact short-term enjoyment and long-term happiness.
  2. Spending money on others frequently brings more joy than spending it on yourself. There are lots of reasons for this, and I would argue it tends to hit all three of the Pillars of Happiness (People, Purpose, and Perspective), but that’s just me.
  3. Spending money on physical goods (a new sofa, a fishing boat, a VCR) consistently produces less happiness than spending it on experiences (a vacation, a concert, bungie jumping from a bridge with a cheetah taped to your back). Numerous studies have demonstrated this.
  4. Despite #3, people tend to analyze the options and consciously buy goods over experiences anyway. More on this later, but by people, I probably mean you.

How big is the difference in happiness between buying goods and buying experiences? In scientific terms, it’s ginormous, which means that just like compound interest or burger wrappers thrown in the back seat, it can really add up over time. Also, as Dave Ramsey says, really good vacations “don’t follow you home,” which means that you get to enjoy them and then when they are done you have nothing but memories, which tend to actually get better over time. Contrast that with any new physical item, which will inevitably require storage, maintenance, repair, etc.

Do you live next door to the Joneses, that mythical family we all compare ourselves to? While it’s easy to see that Dr. Jones’ new sports car is nicer than mine, I am unlikely to compare my vacation to hers (wait, you assumed the doctor was a man???), meaning that once again the experience wins out over the item.

Remember the Flying Cheetah Effect, which tells us that people rapidly adapt to new possessions and cease to find new joy in them? That ‘hedonic adaptation’ is much more pronounced with things than with experiences.

And in a serendipitous twist of life, if you choose to spend your money on an experience with someone else, you not only get the benefit of a great experience (#3), you also get the benefit of giving a gift (#2), meaning that the vacation or concert that you give someone else actually winds up being a gift (of happiness) to yourself.

Despite all this wisdom, when push comes to shove (aren’t those really the same thing?) we still tend to choose the item over the outing, and Thomas Gilovich, a smart guy at Cornell University thinks he knows why: people are stupid. Just kidding. If I have $100 to spend and I can’t buy both an item and an experience, I tend to assess it this way: buy an item and enjoy it for a long time, or buy an experience and enjoy it for a short time. That’s how we fool ourselves (like the time you fooled yourself into getting a mullet) because all the research says it’s exactly the opposite. When people were asked about their enjoyment from buying an Item and buying an Experience (scores from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much)) here’s what the researchers found:

 Item                    Experience

  • Expected enjoyment beforehand                            4.4                            2.9
  • Actual enjoyment, one month afterward             4.7                            5.4

In other words, people were sure the Item would provide much more enjoyment, but a month after the fact, the tortoise caught the hare and they found more joy in the memory of the Experience. I’d guess the Item may actually provide even less joy as it ages, wears out, or begins (for example) eating the toilet paper and soiling the carpet.

The challenge here is for us to outthink ourselves (a process that once put me on a one-way street driving against traffic in a construction zone) but in a good way. In this case, just remind yourself that of the three options available (spending on others, spending on experiences, and spending on goods), that new computer or new dress or new Whopper Chopper will consistently look like the best buy, but consistently feel like the close-out sale after the choice is made.

Experiencing really is better than owning. It’s not complicated. It’s just hard to remember.


Here’s the “faster is better” ad so you can judge for yourself whether the guy wants to get granny high or not.