The Shocking Secret to Happiness

what is the secret to happiness
A University of Colorado researcher has discovered the recipe for happiness.

Hike the Grand Canyon. Sing karaoke. Dance the tango. Grill out with friends. And no matter what, don’t skimp on those experiences to save for a bigger apartment or plasma television.

University of Colorado-Boulder psychology professor and happiness expert Leaf Van Boven recently concluded a study in which he found that spending limited money on life experiences instead of material possessions generally makes people happier.

Van Boven polled people from all walks of life about past activities and purchases. He found people’s moods elevated more when they recalled experiences – even if the experience, at the time it happened, wasn’t that great.

In other words, memories get rosier with hindsight. Objects depreciate.

“The compelling reason people invest in material possessions is you get to retain it over time,” Van Boven said. But in truth, experience is “really quite enduring and improving.”

This is partly because people tend to recall sunnier parts of a trip — the roller-coaster rides, the dolphins in the ocean — while forgetting about the long car ride and cranky kids, he said. It’s also because people are less likely to engage in an experiential arms-race with their neighbors.

Only one person in the neighborhood can have the biggest house or nicest car, Van Boven said, but someone else’s trip to Costa Rica doesn’t cheapen one’s own trip to the Rockies. “Experiences tend to be less prone to those kinds of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ effect,” he said.

Even the changing definition of “basic needs” is influenced by what others have. “Things like air conditioners people nowadays say they absolutely need,” Van Boven said. “Seventy-five years ago nobody would have said that.”

That’s where experiences come into play. A luxury Caribbean cruise isn’t more happiness-inducing than dinner and a movie with friends, Van Boven found. What counts most are memories that emerge from the experience – which tend to be increasingly cherished over time.

Of course, the dichotomy of experience versus objects “is kind of a fuzzy one,” Van Boven said. People need possessions – like a bicycle, skis or a car – to have experiences. The trick is to buy tools as a means to an end, he said.

Ask yourself, “To what extent does your purchase allow you to do new things?” Van Boven said. “If you already have a car that runs reasonably well, getting a newer and better car probably won’t expand your experiential profile.”

The exception to this rule is seen in the poorest of the poor, he found. “Those people at the very lowest levels of income were least likely to say that experiences made them happier than material possessions,” he said.

He ventures two hypotheses to explain this. First, deciding how to spend discretionary income is itself a luxury. Second, “a lot of the experiences people pursue have some kind of educational experience to them.”

A visit to an art museum, a play, a comedy club, a baseball game and a personal quest to climb all of Colorado’s highest peaks share one common thread, he said – “you have to know how to enjoy them.”

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Note: By Paula Pant
Original Publication: The Colorado Daily 6/31/2007


  1. says

    I love this!!

    I’m all for experiences…and, as we speak (errr…write!), my family and I are preparing for our next experience in late October. It’s been fun getting ready for this latest adventure – and in the process, recalling all sorts of other adventures we’ve had through the years.

  2. says

    I just signed up via RSS feed – you are on my Google home page! I like your blog; you are a great writer, and make your points well. As soon as my kids are old enough to appreciate what you’re sharing, they are going to subscribe also!

    • says

      @Miss T — Good for you!! I’m the same way; I spend a huge chunk of my income on experiences (like traveling to different countries/cities, or trying new hobbies like snowboarding) but I spend almost nothing on “stuff,” unless the item is a tool that aids in my experience.

    • says

      @Ashley — The lesson about memories improving with age has stuck with me for years, ever since I first learned it while writing this article. Scientists call this “nostalgia bias.” I call it “feeling happy about your past.” :-)

  3. says

    Hey Paula, cool post. The offer of a voucher is no good to me here on the Emerald Isle, but the message contained within certainly is. With four kids all above 16 now it’s easy to relate to it, none of them ever talks about the cars we’ve owned or the extensions we built but our best nights are always the ones we spend around a table reminiscing about holidays and trips. Life is about memories not things.

  4. says

    Terrific article! Interesting how experiences do get better over time, like fine wine. Also, no keeping up with the Joneses effect. Signed up for email tips and liked on FB. Good luck with your giveaway!

  5. says

    I’m all about spending money on experiences instead of material things. I’ve lost interest in a lot of my possessions which is why I’m always trying to minimalize. I get the most excited about travel – the anticipation, the trip itself, and then all the memories afterwards. -Sydney

  6. says

    I’ve been reading You for the last 3 months and I almost believe you could read my mind. My job usually sends me somewhere interesting very 3-4 months, on high budget, so the travel bug its been in my brain for years now.
    Then, I settled. BIG mistake, I’m trying to get back traveling! Bought a Bike, and research how to travel very cheap. Now, I’m in debt, not that much, but I’m planning to get out fast, in 1 year or less, and then, road here I come!

  7. says

    Email subscriber #1: I enjoy reading your blog :) I have a family & we love to travel. So some of your tips actually work for a family as well. In addition, I’m looking into purchasing a property or two to rent. I want to build a stream of passive income and I think the market where I live is now at a point that I can make it happen. Thank you very much.

  8. says

    I know this is a little old.. but I love this!! everything about it is soo true! As much as a love my gadgets, what I toss around and around in my head are the memories made while traveling or hanging out with friends.

  9. Betsy Booth says

    Good luck with your giveaway! Google Reader subscriber. You learn and see so much when you are places other than home. My job usually sends me somewhere interesting very 3-4 months, on high budget, so the travel bug its been in my brain for years now.

  10. says

    Hey thanks for your wonderful article! It has put my thoughts into perspective. Now I know that I’d rather spend my $2000 on a romantic holiday to Bali with my boyfriend than spend it on the classic Chanel bag that I’ve been drooling after :)

    • says

      @Daisy — I’m glad you realize that!! Money management is the art of aligning your spending with your highest priorities, whatever those may be. If travel is your priority — go for it!

  11. says

    Well I know this is a little old.. but I definitely shared this on facebook. everything about it is soo true! I get the most excited about travel – the anticipation, the trip itself, and then all the memories afterwards. -Copenhagen

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