Happiness is …


If you’ve ever wondered if those must-have acquisitions you just had to have or whether those choices you spent significant portions of your life fretting over have resulted in a quantifiable surge in happiness, read on:

A new study conducted by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist and author of “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior” in an effort to determine once and for all the age old question if money does, indeed, buy happiness, he posed this question to readers:

List the ten most expensive things (products, services or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness .

Count how many items appear on both lists. (This last point designating which items appeared on both lists proved to be both fascinating and revealing).


On the “most expensive” lists, the most distinctive items were:

• “Drugs”
• “Psychotherapy”
• “A week at a mental hospital”
• “Wine cellar filled, then emptied. Repeat.”


On the “happiness” lists, the most distinctive items were:

• Thrift store shopping
• Eyeglasses
• Liposuction
• Pilot’s license
• Social club dues, memberships
• Beach house rentals
• Yoga retreat
• Adoption of child
• $25 plain gold wedding band that lasted through a 46-year marriage
• Coffeemaker with auto settings for waking up to fresh coffee
• “Shack in the woods”
• “Studio apartment in Paris”
• “Upgrade to business class on international flights”
• “Girlfriend”
• “Weekend delivery of NY Times”
• “Tire swing”
• “Spleefs” (marijuana)
• “Ant colony”


While Dr. Miller was impressed with participants’ “good insights, self-revelations and vigorous debate,”on their choices, there were some rather startling revelations. For example, one might expect a certain uniformity in items appearing on both lists, like houses, higher education, travel and cars, but who would have thought that under items appearing much more on the ‘expensive’ than on the ‘happy’ lists were: children, marriage and boats!

But take heart, trends bode future happiness, as well as a discernible upswing in narcissism. But didn’t we know that?

Items appearing often on both lists most often were:

• Houses. Everybody loved their house. A major source of comfort, stability, good family times, aesthetic autonomy.
• Higher education: Most remembered college very fondly as an intellectual and social high point of their lives.
• Travel, especially foreign holidays, family vacations, visits to siblings and friends, living abroad, and sabbaticals.
• Electronics and entertainment media: large-screen HDTVs, DVD/Blu-Ray players, audio equipment, computers, internet.
• Some particular brands and models of cars: BMW 325, 535, M3, and X3, Audi A4, Jaguar, Mazda Miata, Subaru WRX, Toyota Matrix, Prius, and Corolla, Honda Civic.

The items appearing much more on the ‘expensive’ than on the ‘happy’ lists were:

• Children, including child care, school fees, child support, fertility treatments. Costly, often disappointing, usually ungrateful. Yet, the whole point of life, from a Darwinian perspective. Parental instincts trump consumer pleasure-seeking.
• Marriage ceremonies – often very expensive, but apparently more stressful than happiness-promoting. However, happy marriages themselves were often mentioned as major sources of life satisfaction.
• Divorces – very expensive, but more useful in stopping misery than in promoting happiness – “Is it ‘happiness’ when I stop getting hit in the head with a hammer?”
• Taxes. However, a couple of ardent pro-government readers (#68, #94) pointed out that taxes are the cost of civilization; governments are crucial to peace, the rule of law, justice, democracy, etc. Without tax-supported governments then, we’d all be as miserable as victims of civil wars and random violence in ‘failed states’ such as the Congo.
• Health insurance, health care, dentistry, orthodontics: better at avoiding misery and death than delivering happiness.
• Most cars, including car insurance and maintenance. Mostly annoying necessities associated with miserable commutes.
• Boats: very costly, very disappointing. Never buy a boat.

The items appearing much more on the ‘happy’ than on the ‘expensive’ lists were:

• Sharing meals with friends, “jolly dinner parties”, eating out socially. The networking necessities for the hyper-social primate.
• Alcohol: beer, wine, rum, “bar tabs”, “Château d’Yquem (Vintage 1967)”.
• Bicycles of all sorts: commuting bikes, street bikes, time-trial bikes, mountain bikes. Much more happiness-provoking than most cars.
• Camping gear, summer camps for kids, sports equipment (especially running, tennis, skiing, swimming, surfing). Physical activity is the most potent anti-depressant, and outdoor activities are the most natural forms of fun.
• Pets, especially dogs and horses; vet care, animal charities, “free orange kitten”, “organic food for cats”, aquaria, bird feeders. Very high happiness for the money – especially dogs, which have been selectively bred to be good human companions for 15,000 years.
• Hobbies: equipment for cooking, gardening, sewing, knitting, woodworking, pottery, photography, art, etc. Natural ways to enjoy and display skills and creativity.
• Adult education classes (art, music, dance, foreign languages, gymnastics, massage)
• Church, congregation membership, charity. Spirituality and altruism were cheap and rewarding.
• Books: High information density per pound; excellent value.
• Music: CDs, iPods, stereo systems, speakers, live concerts, instruments, lessons.
• Artwork, including paintings, prints, lithographs, especially from local artists
• Leisure software, especially for social networking (email, Facebook) and computer games.
• Quality beds, “excellent mattress”. Sleep quality is a major predictor of night-time comfort and day-time energy.

And here’s Dr. Miller’s analysis of the common patterns and trends among the responses:

First trend: some people commented that there was a pretty good match between their most expensive purchases and those that gave the most happiness:

• “Turns out there’s quite a lot of overlap between the most expensive and the most happiness-inducing purchases after all” (Sarah)
• “The three things (not necessities) I have spent the most money on in the past ten years are: my cottage at Cape Cod, my Lexus, and my Rolex–and I LOVE all three, in the order of their cost. And I don’t care what that says about me.” (Janet Hubbs)
• “I discovered there is almost complete overlap. So what does that say about me? Am I really good at deciding where to put my money or am I a complete narcissist? I would like to think the former.” (Tom from Wisconsin)

Second trend: many comments noted that the happiness items were often experiences rather than physical goods – especially experiences that were social, memorable, educational, adventurous, or altruistic:

• “For the most part, the things that brought most happiness were the ones that kept me hanging out with my friends.” (Olwen)
• “What’s made me happiest is time with my girlfriend/wife, kids and friends. We often spend money while spending time (on meals, trips, activities, etc.), but it’s the time, not the money, that yields the happiness.” (GW)
• “The happiness list mainly involves experiences and interaction with the world through art, intellect and/or emotional ties as opposed to mere possessions.” (ACW)

Third trend: many comments emphasized the value of thrift, and argued that their good overlap between expense and happiness was due to sensible consumer decisions:

• “A great deal of what I own — furniture, accessories, housewares, books, etc. — was purchased used for pennies on the dollar, freeing up a lot of my discretionary income for things and experiences I truly value” (Margo)
• “My husband and I generally shop at thrift stores … pick up good quality furniture by the dumpster, or inherit it… Anyway, all that cheap stuff makes us happy.” (Stevie)
• “As I read through all of the lists I realized that everyone who is more frugal than me is cheap and everyone who spends more than me is ostentatious. I am so relieved to realize that I have perfectly calibrated values.” (Craig)

Fourth trend: several comments emphasized the importance of financial security and low debt, for peace of mind, if not for happiness:

• “The one “thing” that I know that has made me happier than any other is knowing that I have a lot more than I need… not feeling the presence of the wolf at the door is the single greatest thing for which I am thankful.” (Bill Wood)
• “I consider debt a form of self-enslavement, so I avoid debt. I’m 40 and I hope to pay off my house within a few years. Then I will be debt-free. Peace of mind — that’s probably my best purchase ever” (Mkay)

Fifth trend: I’m struck by the absence of some items I expected to be really important for the happiness of some of the people, at least some of the time, such as:

• Mental health: Effective medicines for psychological problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, etc. A lot of evidence suggests that mental disorders are the most important happiness-reducers in the developed world. Many people, upon taking Prozac for depression or Olanzapine for psychosis, feel a huge qualitative increase in quality of life, including work life, social life, and relationship quality.
• Physical health: Effective medicines, surgeries, and equipment for problems such as near-sightedness, hearing loss, backache, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc., which tend to reduce happiness by reducing lifespan. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, ergonomic desks and keyboards, wheelchairs, hip replacements, home oxygen units, anyone?
• Private vices: pornography, prostitutes, romance novels, vibrators, recreational drugs, watching Boston Legal.
• Home ambiance-enhancers such as hearths, candles, incense, good lighting, well-chosen wall paint, antique furniture, children’s drawings, family photos, holiday ornaments.

The first three categories: mental and physical health, private vices – were rarely mentioned, perhaps due to embarrassment – which is another way of saying, those products may have yielded subjective utility, but did not enhance social status, and hence had poor trait-display value. The absence of the ambiance-enhancers is more puzzling.

New York Times


~ by eaesthete on 07/01/09.

One Response to “Happiness is …”

  1. “I discovered there is almost complete overlap. So what does that say about me? Am I really good at deciding where to put my money or am I a complete narcissist? I would like to think the former.” (Tom from Wisconsin)

    My sentiments exactly. With the world falling into ruin for the rapacious run we humans have had at it, you’ve got to wonder just how distorted our definition of happiness is.

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