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Enhancing Happiness


Earlier studies indicated that money can't buy contentment. More recent research suggests that this is only partially true.

family vacation

Sarah Barney from Indianapolis, IN, is on a tear. This mother of 2 daughters and a son plus grandmother of 3 girls is planning and executing trips for her family regularly. First there was a Lewis and Clark journey. Next, a tour through Switzerland and Austria. Most recently, the family went from Paris to Lyon and then enjoyed a riverboat on the Rhone. Among the younger set, ages varied from 7 to 26. All had a good time. Ms. Barney said, “…they quickly became accustomed to 5-star hotels.”

Ms. Barney is giving the gift of experiences. Though earlier studies suggested that money can’t buy happiness, more recent research indicates that it can give opportunities. One such perk is spending on family, which enhances positive feelings among the participants.

Ms. Barney’s behavior is right in line with the premise of a new book entitled Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. It proposes a groundbreaking idea. We can create more happiness for ourselves by sharing money rather than trying to create more wealth (once we have adequate assets for a comfortable retirement) or buying material goods.

They support this concept through research. When individuals were asked prospectively if they would rather have a material object versus an experience, most chose the former. They apparently did this because they think it will last longer. But, when the question is turned around, and people are asked to reflect on the past and consider whether purchases were more important for them than experiences, far fewer were willing to choose things.

In summary, the research shows that purchases that include a social connection made a shared experience and it was of lasting value to the participants. The importance of costly buys for self, on the other hand, seemed to diminish over time as the purchaser becomes accustomed to the article.

Part of the enduring enjoyment of experiences is that they involve something new—either an activity and/or in the presence of the people with whom one is living it. When travel is involved, it can be both. Seeing new sights that won’t be visited again for a long time, if ever, make it special. It creates a treat.

Interestingly enough, the treat doesn’t have to be a big one like traveling to a foreign country. It can be something as simple as having desert once a week instead of every day. Then, anticipation of the enjoyment is greater. This is right in line with studies of the brain’s pleasure center which show that it is stimulated more by anticipation of pleasure than the pleasure itself.

Another way to achieve happiness advocated by Dunn and Norton is to use money to open up time. In this way, there is freedom to participate in more pleasurable activities rather than slaving away in the kitchen or its equivalent.

The most important contribution of this book is that it forces the reader to examine her or his priorities in terms of spending money. Cash can be expended and bring little or no pleasure. Or, it can be used to enhance happiness. The choice is ours. Happy Money teaches us how to do this better.

As a counterpoint to this book, I can’t help but bring a touch of reality to one of its main tenets, the advantages of shared experiences. For such an event to be positive, it has to be pleasant. Family vacations, planned by senior members of a family who have more resources, could be extremely satisfying as in the case of Sarah Barney’s clan. On the other hand, if not organized carefully, they could be less than optimal, especially if the younger participants are not happily engaged. Ms. Barney used a travel company. She said, “I cannot say enough good things about Tauck family tours.” For those looking for something more modest, the result could be the same however. One study demonstrated that those who vacationed for shorter periods derived just as much pleasure as those who did so for longer. The important common component was a shared experience.

For More:

Using Ready Cash for Family

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