Dec 18th, 2014

Can You Buy Happiness?

Magical Asian Valley Path at Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights Image by Don Williamson

Can you buy happiness? That’s a great question. And timely too.

It’s easy to get caught up in the holidays. Each year I tell my kids we’ll have a small Christmas and that we’ll save money for things that really matter — like a trip to California or Canada or even trombone lessons.  Inside I know that you can’t REALLY buy happiness with stuff, yet each year I get caught up in the consumer culture that is America today. I see my buying habits creep out of control as we get closer and closer to Christmas Day. I worry that the stockings won’t be full enough, or my kids will feel let down that they didn’t get that one thing they really wanted. I pick up additional gifts here and there and tuck the packages away high up in the closest. Inevitably I forget about little things that I bought throughout November and end up with way more than our family needed or wanted. But all I really want is for my family to be happy. I don’t  want more “stuff.”  I have trouble finding spots for all the things we have already.

I’m reminded of a moment last week during my son’s futsal game  as another parent asked his mom what she wanted for Christmas — and she replied very seriously: “Stamps!”  He laughed a bit and made a joke about how that wasn’t really the sort of gift he was thinking of — but she had a point, stamps are very practical!

So how do you solve this conundrum of trying to give the people that you love happiness? Especially if they already have everything they need.  Turns out that it’s easier than you might think. Nearly every major web media outlet has covered this topic including Huffington Post,  The Atlantic,  and  NPR.  But the message may not have gotten through to you  — clouded by TV ads, the Black Friday ads and catalogs advertising all the new things you need.

And here’s the truth. Research shows money increases your happiness up to a certain point, where all your basic needs (like food, clothing, shelter) are met. Then, money stops being so helpful.  At a certain point, money can only buy happiness through meaningful time spent with people you enjoy. Here’s another secret. The things that humans think will make them happy don’t.  So what does make you happy?

Psychologists have studied this for a long time. Here’s some of what they’ve found. Experiences bring happiness. So do rituals, routines and traditions.  Routines and traditions can be especially important during hectic times (read holidays) or times of change.  Novelty is another good one, and also one reason kids love playing with new toys on Christmas day, but sometimes are bored with them by the following week. Showing gratitude is another wonderful thing you can do to increase happiness.

I like this quote from Forbes Magazine — it’s a headline actually: “Want To Buy Happiness? Purchase An Experience.” I have to admit this is not what I expected to read in Forbes, a magazine known for its investment advice (Forbes Road Map to Riches) and its list of  richest Americans.  The article continues with a quote from author and researcher Michael Norton, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

“One of the most common things people do with their money is get stuff,” explains Norton, “But we have shown…in research that stuff isn’t good for you. It doesn’t make you unhappy, but it doesn’t make you happy. But one thing that does make us happy is an experience.”

Even the Wall Street Journal chimed in just last month with a story on the topic. To get the most “bang for your buck” the article suggests giving money away or spending money on experiences.  “For instance, giving money away makes people a lot happier than lavishing it on themselves. And when they do spend money on themselves, people are a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel than for material goods.”

So let me be so bold as to suggest this holiday, don’t get stressed out with all that buying you have to do! Give someone you love a Family Membership to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, or tickets  to Dominion GardenFest of Lights. For that matter, give them a membership to the Science Museum, or ballet or symphony tickets. Find a worthwhile experience to spend your money on — and then share it with those you love.
Here’s my take on Forbes Magazine’s 5 principles:

  • Buy Experiences (I can’t think of more memorable experiences than seeing a 12-foot unicorn reflecting in a lake with 500,000 twinkling lights, a butterfly landing on my daughter at Butterflies LIVE!, or exploring the Wildside Walk with my family and discovering a bloom I’ve never seen before.)
  • Make it a Treat (Don’t feel like you have to visit us all the time to get your money’s worth.)
  • Buy Time (Go ahead, leave work early  one afternoon so you can enjoy Flowers After 5 this summer, or take the whole day off to enjoy A Million Blooms.)
  • Pay Now, Consume Later (Buy it now, and your membership lasts the entire year.)
  • Invest in Others (Do it for your family, or give the gift of membership to a family or individual you know and love.)

 The Atlantic sums it up well: “It’s kind of counter to the logic that if you pay for an experience, like a vacation, it will be over and gone; but if you buy a tangible thing, a couch, at least you’ll have it for a long time.”

Family at Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights Garrett Nasrallah

Give the gift of experience: Peace, Tranquility, Nature, and Beauty.

Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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