Ask The Expert: Can You Buy Happiness?

Ask The Expert: Can You Buy Happiness?

After the holiday bells come the holiday bills… and an opportunity to ponder that age-old question: can you buy happiness? As luck would have it, researchers have been studying that very thing.

Family reunions, travel, parties, gifts… The holidays warm our hearts – but there’s a price to pay! Take a look:

Department store sales, monthly


Year after year, consumer spending in December approaches $14 billion in Canada, and nothing leads us to believe that it was any different in 2015. In fact, a survey done last November showed that Canadians were expecting to spend an average of $1,551 during the holiday period alone1.

Has all this spending made us happier?

The variable geometry of happiness

In 2014, a team of researchers from the psychology department of Cornell University demonstrated that consumer satisfaction with a purchase varied depending on the type of purchase made.

Question: If you had to choose between buying a long-lived item (for example, an item of clothing, furniture or home decor) or an enjoyable but ephemeral experience (for example, a live show or a trip), which do you think would be more satisfying? Answer: The results of the study show that so-called “experiential” purchases provide greater satisfaction than tangible items. In other words: go for the fancy restaurant, not the fancy vase. And we’re talking short term as well as long term.

Experience above all


The team of psychologists advanced some hypotheses to explain these results:

  1. We get used to it
    Humans adapt to everything. For example, if we raise our material standard of living, our expectations suddenly increase as well. We start wanting different clothes, furniture, cars… But we aren’t so quick, it seems, to trivialize an experience, which retains that special glow in our memories for a long time.
  2. Everybody’s talking about it
    Because humans get pleasure from their relationships, spending that allows us to strengthen these gives us more enduring satisfaction. The movies we’ve seen, the meals we’ve shared, the family trips: these are things we talk about for years! That fancy vase? Not so much.
  3. You are what you do
    From clothing to cars, the things that we buy say a lot about our social status and peer groups. On the other hand, our favourite music, our education and our travels say even more.
  4. Compare and… regret
    Nothing could be easier than comparing one pair of shoes with another: price, quality, appearance… This makes it quite likely that we will suffer from buyer’s remorse once we own the item. On the other hand, we aren’t so likely to make an unfavourable comparison between our own experiences and those of other people.

If the researchers from Cornell are right, greater happiness could be found by investing in life experiences rather than consumer goods… Some good food for thought during this time of year when financial institutions are doing everything they can to persuade customers to save: save to buy stuff or to make plans come true?

1 Source:

Desjardins Financial Security: Lance Wiebe
Phone: (905) 401-2842

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