Ever since I was about 14 years old, I have lusted over the early 1970s-era Porsche 911 RS. My ideal dream car has not changed in twenty years, and to this day, I can still see myself speeding around curvy mountain roads in my Superman blue 911 with a tan leather interior.
If you do a quick search on eBay motors for perfectly restored 911s of that era, you’ll find several for sale—with starting bids of over $100,000.
Clearly, I’m not going to own one of these beautiful machines anytime soon. Or ever.
As disappointing as that may be, recent research has found that I am probably happier spending my life lusting after my dream car. Buying it would end up being ultimately much more unsatisfying than daydreaming about it.
That’s due to something psychologists call habituation. Once you own something, you get used to it. When’s the last time you experienced the same joy at owning an object than you did when you first bought it? The new purchase excitement you feel over everything from cars to furniture to iPads eventually fades, but your feeling of wanting things doesn’t abate just because of how much you own. We are all looking for the next new thing to want, and if we have the money, each purchase will simply give us a momentary high before the cycle begins again.
But for frugal individuals and mindful spenders, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can buy more happiness with our time and money if we are deliberate about our spending and recognize that always wanting something that is out of reach isn’t always a bad thing. Here’s what the research has to say about the best way to buy happiness—without necessarily spending a dime:
Experiences Make Us Happier Than Material Objects
Buying a new car (generally) feels great. Driving off the lot, you know that you’ll enjoy driving that car for years to come. But several weeks or months after you’ve bought it, once the new car smell has dissipated and you’ve put the first scratch in the paint or spilled the first cup of coffee on your upholstery, your new car has simply become your car. The only thing that reminds you of the newness of your purchase is your car payment.
But if instead of researching and buying a new car, you had instead taken a vacation—even a modest one—you would derive a great deal more pleasure from your purchase. That’s because with an experience, you have the opportunity to enjoy the anticipation, the purchase itself, and the memories. Material objects only give you the first two types of enjoyment. You can relive the joy of your vacation every time you tell friends or acquaintances stories about what you experienced, but just how many times can you tell people you have a new car?
None of this is particularly surprising to most frugal individuals. Developing habits of frugality forces you to recognize that new material purchases don’t really deliver the same bang for the buck as experience purchases. However, what’s interesting about the new research is that it indicates that even lusting after an unattainable purchase counts as an experience.
If you think about this, it makes sense. Because I love Porsches, I spend time looking at beautifully restored examples online, I read about them, I watch videos of them being driven, and I’ll even post calendars and pictures of them up. All of that gives me fodder to talk about my favorite car, which increases my enjoyment. If I were to actually buy a Porsche, I’d be giving up some of my experiential enjoyment. Why buy a Porsche calendar when I have one in the garage? Why watch a video and listen to the music of the engine when I could take my own out for a drive?
But again, I’d get pretty darn used to having that Porsche, and I’d lose out on the experience of wanting it. And according to psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, the little boosts I get from thinking about my dream car add up to more happiness than the enormous boost I would get from actually buying one. That’s because:
“The Frequency of Happy Experiences Matters More Than Their Intensity.”
No one would argue that getting married, winning the lottery, or earning a major award are not incredibly happy and desirable events. But the huge burst of happiness you get from these big events fades just as quickly as the smaller bursts you feel when you chat on the phone with your best friend or walk to the ice cream parlor with your family. The difference is that you can have such little positive experiences much more frequently than you can have the big boosts—and apparently it’s the frequency that counts.
When it comes to spending money on expensive wants, there is no comparison between the accumulated bursts you feel in thinking or dreaming about a big purchase and the single feeling of happiness you get from buying it, intense as that feeling may be. Because you get to feel the little mood boosts every time you think about an expensive purchase, which will help keep your overall happiness level higher, whereas making the purchase will give you only one intense boost that will fade.
Basically, I’ve gotten a great deal more pleasure out of twenty years of lusting after a car than I would ever be able to experience by buying it.
This means that there is a frugal way to experience the shopper’s high that we call retail therapy: the old money-saving standby that is window shopping.
Simply visiting your favorite designer stores and trying on the clothes or playing with the electronics you love can lift your mood. No spending is necessary.
The Bottom Line
It turns out that your dear old dad was right—it really is good for you not to get everything you want. Recognizing that fact, and being mindful about how you spend both your money and your time can make you much happier than unrestricted purchases ever could.
What big purchases have you dreamed of? Have you ever made a big purchase that you regretted?
Image by cosmic_spanner