This morning I read the New York Times article, “The Voices in My Head Say ‘Buy It!’ Why Argue?”
The piece discusses how the brain activity of “tightwads” differs from that of “spendthrifts.” No surprise—turns out that spendthrifts respond with more pleasure to the prospect of spending money, and tightwads respond with more pain.
I took particular interest in this topic, because I don’t think the happiness experts have paid enough attention to the pleasure of buying.
When discussing the relationship between money and happiness, happiness experts generally emphasize that because of the “hedonic treadmill,” we adapt to whatever we’ve bought, and any particular purchase ceases to bring us much additional happiness.
So, if you move to a bigger house or buy a new pair of boots—in time, you become accustomed to your new possession, and you’re no happier than you were before.
I think that this analysis oversimplifies things a bit…and it also overlooks the fact that many people make purchases for the jolt of happiness they get from the very act of purchasing.
Now, you might say—that’s not true happiness; true happiness comes from flow/being in the moment/doing good for others/pleasure isn’t the same thing as happiness/…etc., etc. Fair enough. But from what I’ve observed, I think that many people get a feeling that looks a lot like happiness from buying stuff.
I also think that the pleasure of buying is distinct from the pleasure of possessing.
That’s why some people have closets filled with clothes that still have their tags.
That’s one reason it’s fun to be a grandparent. You see a silly rainbow crazy straw in the drugstore, and for some reason, you just want to buy it. You’d have no excuse—except that it’s perfect for your grandchild!
And some people buy lots of gifts not so much out of generosity, but because they love the excuse to buy.
So to say that hedonic adaptation means that “money can’t make you happy” ignores the fact that a boost in happiness can come right at the moment of acquisition.
Of course, the happiness that comes from buying is fleeting. And maybe it’s not a very laudable kind of happiness. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not real—or that it doesn’t shape people’s behavior.
I rarely get this feeling, myself. I’m usually hit by dread and buyer’s remorse when I spend. Perhaps that’s why I really notice other people’s enthusiasm.
This issue touches on the question of does money buy happiness? And that’s a very complicated subject. But I believe that the answer, in a nutshell, is this: It depends.
It depends on the kind of person you are. (Do you have a passion for collecting art or for renting movies?)
It depends on how you spend your money. (Is your money buying cocaine or college?)
It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. (Are you richer or poorer than most of your friends and family? do you have more or less than you did in the past?)
That’s not a simple answer—but, as Albert Einstein remarked, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”