Experts weigh in: Buy experiences, not things

My daughter told me today that her favourite number was six, because her sixth birthday had been her favourite. That was three years ago, but she seemed surprised that I didn’t remember why that particular birthday came out on top. Had we given her a particularly longed-for present, I asked? 

“No! You picked me up from school at lunch and took me to Boston Pizza!” 

Seeing a play is an investment in your happiness!

Somewhere in a ivy-covered campus, an academic gave a satisfied nod. "That proves what I’ve been saying for years."

I’ve always been fascinated by studies that explore the relationship between money and happiness. A new one was published just last month by the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics (ONS). Statisticians crunched the numbers on a Wealth and Assets survey conducted between June 2011 and July 2012 and reached a definitive conclusion: 

An individual’s level of personal well-being is strongly related to the level of wealth of the household in which they live. Life satisfaction, sense of worth and happiness are higher, and anxiety less, as the level of household wealth increases.

Reading on, I was interested to learn that the researchers looked for, but didn’t find a link between property wealth (i.e., stuff) and happiness — in other words, it was the net income, not the palatial home or the pension holdings, that made a difference to well-being.

The ONS study seems consistent with both common sense — a higher income means more freedom of choice and removes certain real anxieties — and the findings of other researchers. 

Numerous studies have found that spending money does boost happiness levels, albeit under rather specific circumstances. The key, it seems, is to spend on experiences rather than objects.

An oft-cited 2011 study by academic and author Daniel Todd Gilbert and colleagues found that an experiential purchase brought greater happiness to 57% of respondents, while a material purchase improved the self-reported happiness of just 34% of those surveyed. People also got more of a happiness bang for their buck when they spent money on others, rather than themselves. 

So, I’m going for a two-fer with my next purchase — buying an experience, and spending money on someone else. I’ve bought two tickets to the musical Kinky Boots and I’m taking my mom’s best friend, Mary Jo.

She’ll be driving four or five hours to see me (and the show) and the subtext of the whole outing is too obvious to be subtextual. We’ll both be thinking of all the times we went to the theatre with my mom. Next to my sister and I, no one misses my mom as much as Mary Jo, and we’ll be honouring Helen's memory not only by keeping up the theatre-going tradition, but by looking out for one another as we grieve our shared loss.

Also, I will pick my daughter up at school and take her to lunch next time I have a day off.  I’m sure it will be money well spent.