A few researchers are looking again at whether happiness can be bought, and they are discovering that quite possibly it can - it’s just that some strategies are a lot better than others. Taking a friend to lunch, it turns out, makes us happier than buying a new outfit. Splurging on a vacation makes us happy in a way that splurging on a car may not.
“Just because money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t mean money cannot buy happiness,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “People just might be using it wrong.”
Dunn and others are beginning to offer an intriguing explanation for the poor wealth-to-happiness exchange rate: The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.
Another part of the equation shows up in the value of vacations and other adventures. When daily life gets dreary, it is great to have something different to look forward to, or something special to remember. One study I read showed that going to a new restaurant made married couples much happier than going to one they'd been to before. We need variety in our lives, and when we spend money to get it, we may be doing ourselves a lot of good.