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It's Complicated: Money and Happiness

Does more wealth lead to more happiness? Researchers have tackled this question for decades, and although the results have differed, one fact is certain: The relationship between money and happiness–or “well-being,” as many researchers put it–is complicated.

Think before you spend

In their book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton summarize their own and others’ research. What they found is that it’s not necessarily how much you make that matters to overall happiness (although that certainly contributes), but what you do with your money. They boiled down the findings to five “key principles of happy money.”
1. Buy Experiences. Investing in memories can result in a more sustained level of happiness than buying a bigger house, a more luxurious car, or other material goods. Buying the latest technological gadget might elicit the kind of joy of a child experiences opening a new toy on the holidays, but just like that new toy, the gadget loses its novelty with time–a principle psychologists refer to as “hedonic adaptation.” On the other hand, experiences–even those that are fleeting or may initially provoke trepidation, such as hang gliding–create memories that help foster prolonged contentment.
2. Make It a Treat. While you’re investing in those experiences, be sure to spread them out so they don’t become expectations or habits. In this way, the novelty of each new experience will be fully realized. As the book says, “Abundance is the enemy of appreciation.” This is also true with something as simple as a cappuccino. If you make it a daily ritual, it becomes a habit. If you instead substitute your daily coffee once a week with a froth-covered treat, then it becomes a reward to savor.
3. Buy Time. According to Dunn and Norton, individuals should ask themselves the question, “How will this purchase change the way I use my time?” For example, will it allow you to spend more time with your friends or family, or create more “to-dos” to clog your list? Will it free you up to participate in more activities you enjoy? Investing in products or services that allow you to spend time on the things you love will lead to greater overall well-being. And, say the authors, don’t fall into the trap of putting a dollar value on your time, as this leads to increased stress levels. “Simply feeling like your time is valuable can make it seem scarce.”
4. Pay Now, Consume Later. Paying for a treat or experience up front, such as event tickets you buy months in advance, allows you to benefit from the extended pleasure of eager anticipation. With all due respect to Tom Petty, the waiting, it seems, may be the best part. Conversely, credit cards can be a dangerous, albeit convenient, financial tool, facilitating a “consume now, pay later” dynamic. One study cited in Happy Money found that all 30 people surveyed underestimated their monthly credit-card bills by a sizable average of nearly 30%.
5. Invest in Others. Regardless of your circumstances–wealthy or not, young or old–research finds that spending money on others leads to greater happiness than spending on oneself.
The danger zones
While some experts differ on whether higher incomes result in greater levels of happiness, they tend to agree on the following: Increasing debt levels are detrimental to happiness, and keeping up with the Joneses can lead to a general sense of dissatisfaction. Instead, actively managing debt while finding ways to appreciate what you already have on a day-to-day basis may help you make well-thought-out saving and spending choices that support your overall level of well-being.
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2015