You Suck at Happiness

“Most people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don’t know how to use their money to acquire it.”
E. Dunn, D. Gilbert and T. Wilson. “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right,” Journal of Consumer Psychology.

I’m sorry to tell you, you suck at happiness.  You have some vague idea of how to get it, but you have no idea how to maintain it, what is going to make you happy in the long term, or what even it really means.  In other words, you suck at it.  Of course, what I really mean is that most people don’t have a very good understanding about what makes them happy in the long term or how to get it.  As that quoted paper suggests, we can buy happiness but not in the way you’d expect.  Jeff Atwood has an excellent summary on the topic.

Human nature being what it is, most of us would not readily admit that we have a problem with happiness.  Who needs to teach you how to be happy?  It’s just one of those things that we innately know… right?  Well, I disagree.  It’s one of those human quirks where we can’t reason rationally when it comes to ourselves (everyone’s an above average driver you say?).  That’s where the almighty science comes in to give us a hand about what we’re really after.

Two important lessons that really stood out for me are from Jeff’s article:

Buy experiences instead of things.
Things get old. Things become ordinary. Things stay the same. Things wear out. Things are difficult to share. But experiences are totally unique; they shine like diamonds in your memory, often more brightly every year, and they can be shared forever. Whenever possible, spend money on experiences such as taking your family to Disney World, rather than things like a new television.

Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones.
Because we adapt so readily to change, the most effective use of your money is to bring frequent change, not just “big bang” changes that you will quickly grow acclimated to. Break up large purchases, when possible, into smaller ones over time so that you can savor the entire experience. When it comes to happiness, frequency is more important than intensity. Embrace the idea that lots of small, pleasurable purchases are actually more effective than a single giant one.

This is interesting because this is a bit counter-intuitive to how the conventional (consumer-driven) thinking about happiness goes.  So a two-week vacation in Hawaii is better than a brand new Porsche, and a variety of less expensive meals is better than the super expensive French restaurant.  Makes you think about whether that last big purchase was really worth it.  All I know is that I’m going to start spending my money where it makes me the most happy.  Now where did I put that iPad…