We have all heard the saying ‘money can’t buy happiness’ and there is truth in that – especially when we place too high an expectation on what we think we can achieve with money. Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

However, according to Dunn and Norton in their book ‘Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending’ there are some principles  behind how we can use money that can dramatically affect our overall level of happiness.

I am not sure I agree with all that they say in their book, but here are 3 of their 5 principles about how money can actually buy happiness. I supplement their observations and research with my own reflections:


1. By buying experiences.

When I was a teenager I was given a choice between buying a cassette player or going to Switzerland to visit some close relatives. For some reason still unknown to me I chose the cassette player. The last time I checked it is still there in my parents’ house over 30 years later! It’s not much use to anybody and I wonder why it is still in the house. In retrospect I think I should have gone to Switzerland and given myself some memories to carry with me in life.

Another memory I have is from 1973 when my Dad was weighing up between taking us as a family to India or buying a 26 inch colour television (a big deal in those days). I am so glad he opted for the television (that’s a joke!). No we actually went on a 3 month trip to India that was an amazing time of adventure and connecting with family who we had not seen for 5 years. Memories from that time are still with me decades later. So far in my life I have never repeated the experience of being 12 weeks away from home on holiday. I somehow don’t think I would feel the same way about a television – even if it was in colour!

So money can buy happiness if it buys experiences. This is especially so if the experience:

– brings you together with other people fostering a sense of social connection
– makes a memorable story that you would enjoy telling for years to come
– is tightly linked to your sense of who you are or want to be
– provides a unique opportunity that eludes easy comparison with other available options.

2. By creating treats for yourself.
Money creates opportunities to buy more things – especially those things that we would love to have and to enjoy. The only problem is that when something becomes easily available then over time it loses the initial joy and satisfaction associated with it.  Knowing something won’t last forever can make us appreciate it more.
This is closely linked to gratitude. Quoting Oprah Winfrey, “The single greatest thing you can do to change your life today would be to start being grateful for what you have.” (For more on gratitude see The Importance Of Gratitude In Becoming A Genuinely Happier Person and Why Gratitude Can Be So Powerful). However, it is one thing to be gratitude for having or receiving something, but to maintain that sense of gratitude for that thing (whatever it is) can be more challenging.
Especially as we get older we move from seeking abundance of things to engage in a kind of pruning process to trim away the people and things that don’t deliver the emotional pay off of happiness that we seek.
In other words, recognising that an end is near holds a key to happiness , helping us turn to readily available comforts back into treats.When something is readily available to us it  becomes very easy to ‘normalise it’ and so lose our sense of enjoyment of it. The simple examples of that are having something like a food we enjoy or a favourite TV programme every day or as an on-going binge. When we do that then the happiness we get from those experiences reaches a plateau and rapidly tails off. (See the posts Which Way Are You Looking Part 1 and Part 2 along with How Would You Define Success Part 3 where we look at the top 5 regrets of the dying).

3. By using money to buy time.
One of the ubiquitous features of modern life is feeling hurried and stretched (see the post Data Overload). However, according to the research this may actually be an illusion. DeVoe and Pfeffer (2011) asked participants to record everything they did for all 1,440 minutes of the day. When they compared recent time diaries to similar diaries from earlier decades they discovered that people in the United States actually spend about 4 hours more per week engaging in leisure than they did in the 1960s!

It is striking how easy it is to fritter away time in tasks that we are not equipped to do or lack expertise in. If you find those tasks a form of relaxation then maybe that is fine, but often it can be an unnecessary distraction. The problem with buying things is that those things invariably take up time in looking after them and maintaining them. Quoting from Dunn and Norton’s book (p.74):

“Thinking about time – rather than money- spurs people to engage in activities that promote well-being like socialising and volunteering….Why? Time and money promote different mindsets. We view our our choices about how to spend time as being deeply connected to our sense of self. in contrast, choices about money often lead us to think in a relatively cold, rational manner. Focussing on time frees people to prioritise happiness and social relationships.”

I appreciate that a lot of these options are not available to the vast majority of people in the world. However, if you are able to read this blog then you like me are among the privileged.

How do these 3 proposed ways that money can buy happiness resonate (or not) with you?

(For more on this topic also see the blog post How Much Money Do You Actually Need?)