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Experiences, live and in concert

Gilovich came to a forceful conclusion at the end of a 20-year study: Buy experiences, not things. The irony here is that many people think the experience will fade, while the big bathroom renovation, for example, will continually delight.

There are multiple reasons for why outsized things don’t cut it. First of all, anything we buy we soon adapt to — and whatever hole it once filled in our lives soon returns. Envy also plays a role, as there will always be some Jones family that has a little more than we do.

But the experience of live entertainment leaves a lasting imprint on us. As Gilovich points out in his research, experiences and shared events bolster identity, connection, and social behavior in ways that luxury cars or a souped up home theater system just can’t. As one of his graduate students remarked in an Atlantic article, “People don't like hearing about other people's possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend."

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‘Frequent doses of lovely things’

There are certain circumstances where things can buy happiness but as Dunn puts it, “frequent doses of lovely things, rather than infrequent doses of lovelier things” have a more lasting effect.

It’s the kind of joy that collectors or people who cruise the thrift shop for a $300 jacket marked down to $3 know — and one that again points more towards shared experience than blind consumerism. Collectors have a way of finding fellow collectors; thrift shopping is a fun activity when taken on by teams of eager bargain hunters.

Those frequent, small pleasures also tend to differentiate. Dunn points to other ways you can enjoy this kind of happy spending, such as dinner with friends or buying a book you can’t wait to devour. (If it’s a book on enhancing happiness by taking friends to dinner, so much the better.)

Spending on others

From the Midas fable, to “Citizen Kane,” to the trials of the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, stories abound of people whose riches did nothing to reinforce social connection or a sense of community. And let’s face it, self-indulgence isn’t exactly an ideal foundation for generosity.

Dunn led a well-known 2013 study where she handed volunteers a $5 or $20 bill with a simple assignment: Spend it on yourself or someone else by the end of the day. Those who spent the money on others reported more happiness. The authors concluded that “the rewards of prosocial spending are observable in both the brain and the body.”

Why wait for an academic to hand you some spare cash? Science is on your side if you take a friend out for coffee or treat them to a “lovely thing.” You need not spend a small fortune to get a major jolt of joy. Financially speaking, how’s that for a big-ticket return on investment?

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Lou Carlozo Freelance writer

Lou Carlozo is a freelance contributor to Moneywise.

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