You’ve heard it over and over: Money doesn’t buy happiness. Even if people didn’t keep telling you that, you might guess from the large number of extremely wealthy people with drug or alcohol addiction, depression, or even suicidal tendencies. You may even have experienced it yourself, when that last raise or bonus didn’t increase your own happiness. Neither did the extra money in your bank account or the new gadget or nice piece of clothing you splurged on.
But before you give up on money as a source of pleasure, you should know that there are some times when scientific research shows money truly can buy happiness. Money really can make you happy whenever one or more of the following is true:
1. You spend it on extra time.
A fascinating study of 4,400 Americans showed pretty definitively that people who value time over money are happier than those who don’t. So go ahead and hire that housekeeper or virtual assistant, and splurge for that grocery delivery service. It’s highly likely that you’ll be glad you did.
2. You spend it on a great experience.
We tend to assume it’s wiser to spend money on things–especially things that might appreciate in value–rather than fun. After all, if you spend $300 on a really nice smartphone today, you’ll still have that smartphone the next day and the day after. If you spend that $300 on really great seats to see your favorite band, the next day, you’ll have nothing.
In fact, the opposite is true, researchers at San Francisco State University discovered. Although people tend to believe that buying physical things will make them happier for longer than spending money on experiences because physical things last longer, in fact as we get used to owning that great new gadget or necklace, the happiness it causes fades into the background. (I experienced this myself when after years of wanting one, I bought an electric car. For the first couple of months, just seeing it sitting out in the yard caused a definite jolt of joy. I still love it, but now I’m used to it and that intense reaction has gone away.)
On the other hand, a great experience such as going to the concert will stay in your memory for a long time, and is likely to cause you enjoyment every time you think back on it, and every time you tell someone else about it. Experiences may not last as long as things, but the pleasure they cause lasts longer.
3. You spend it with someone you care about.
Human being are social by nature and there’s plenty of evidence that both a healthy relationship with a significant other and feeling part of a community can help you live longer. (Conversely, loneliness can kill you.)
Some social psychologists believe that one reason experiences seem to make us happier than things is that we often share them with a friend, partner, or family member. So if you do decide to get those great concert tickets, make sure to bring someone along whose company you enjoy. And if you really must buy that new phone, bring someone along on your shopping trip.
4. You spend it on someone else.
When researchers gave college students some extra cash and instructed one group to spend it on themselves and another group to spend it on others, the second group reported much more happiness than the first.
It makes sense if you think about our social orientation–giving money away or spending it on someone else makes us feel more connected to others. (As well as proud of our own generosity.) The thanks and warm fuzzies we get from the recipient of our largesse is likely to make us feel good as well. So go ahead and buy that nice present or make that charitable donation. You’ll be making yourself happier, as well as others.
Spend within your means.
While wealth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, worry over excessive debt and having trouble paying your bills will definitely make you unhappy. If you spend more than you can afford, even on experiences or gifts, the stress you’ll feel as a result will most likely outweigh any pleasure the money gave you. So don’t go there. Make sure you have enough money to cover your bills, plus unexpected expenses, before you spend it on experiences, gifts, or even objects. Whether or not money makes you happy, make sure it doesn’t make you miserable.