A large number of us spend a good deal of time and energy either working for or thinking about money. Of course, at a minimum we want to meet basic needs and have something left over for recreational purchases; however, a lot of people come to associate more money with more happiness.

The truth? While those in comfortable circumstances are indeed happier than those who can barely make ends meet, studies consistently show that being well-off financially is not a guarantee for happiness.

Material Items vs. Experiences 

It turns out that how money is used profoundly influences how it actually makes us feel. When it comes to spending money on ourselves, experiences trump “things” in terms of personal happiness levels. An “experience” could be travel, going to a movie, a play, a theme park, etc.

Why is this? Experiences are often social in nature; we usually travel with a partner (or if alone, we meet people along the way); movies and cultural events are often experienced with other people, enhancing their value. We have memories connected with these events that become a part of our personal history.

By contrast, material items are “just for us.” They also lose their charm and impact fairly quickly though the human ability to adapt; after an initial surge of short-term happiness, we “get used to” our purchases pretty quickly. From a new vase to a new car, we adapt, start taking it for granted, and more or less forget about its initial thrill. The “new toy” becomes part of the background, along with all of our other “stuff.”

Anticipation and Income 

Humans also feel more happiness while anticipating upcoming experiences as opposed to a scheduled purchase of something new. We tend to get excited about upcoming concerts, vacations and other scheduled events; we gleefully check off each day on the calendar. By contrast, having to wait to purchase something material tends to make most people irritable and impatient.

Princeton researchers Deaton and Kahneman found that happiness levels did increase with income levels, but only up to a household income of $75,000 USD annually. Overall life satisfaction due to having more options did increase in wealthier persons; however, their essential happiness did not.

Gratitude, Novelty and Generosity

One effective way to help offset the human tendency to take things for granted is through targeted gratitude and appreciation. Simply taking note of the things you appreciate each day can help keep them fresh. Talk with loved ones often about what you appreciate, and consider keeping a gratitude journal; write down five things you were grateful for that day, including some of your purchased items.

You can also offset the human ability to adapt by keeping variety and “novelty” alive in your home. Rearrange things regularly so that your purchased items are kept in different places; that way, you’ll keep re-seeing them with fresh eyes.

Charitable giving also consistently makes people happier than spending money on themselves, especially when they can witness the impact their gift has made. This is true no matter what the income level; in rich and poor countries alike, giving money to those in need makes us happier.

As we enter the holiday season, consider focusing less on material items and making generosity and gratitude priorities. You’ll not only feel happier yourself; you’ll also help to spread joy and appreciation to others.