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Can Money Buy Us Happiness?

Geoff Williams

Money can't buy you happiness, goes the generally accepted wisdom that was probably made up by someone poor, who wanted to bring his rich friends down a few notches. Some scientific studies have agreed with that sentiment, while others have concluded that, yes, being rich helps with being happy. In any case, if you want to crack open your wallet and try to buy some happiness, there are some purchases that may lift your spirits (at least for a while).

Buy experiences, not things. Several studies in recent years, including a report published last year in the journal Psychological Science, have shown that buying experiences -- like going on a skiing trip or taking an art class -- makes us happier than material goods. Part of that is due to the anticipation of an experience, the study suggests, which is apparently more exciting than when you're waiting to buy merchandise like laptops and clothes.

Another reason paying for experiences can make us happier is that their value endures over time. That seems ridiculous at first. After all, if you buy new stuff, like a lamp, you might have that stuff until you die. If you go on a weekend trip with the family, it's over come Sunday. Arguably, that's why many people choose to buy things over spending money on doing something fun.

Still, unlike buying new clothes or a new electronic gadget, "We can savor the memories of a vacation for a lifetime," says James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and author of "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy."

"The thrill from material purchases is usually short-lived," Roberts adds, explaining that this is especially true when monthly bills for the purchase keep coming. "Often, the boost we get from spending on ourselves quickly disappears."

Some brand names may make you (briefly) happier. There are always exceptions to these rules, and Kordell Norton, a business consultant and speaker in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, thinks he's found one. Some business have a knack for making customers so happy that the mere act of interacting and buying from the company feels like a pleasant experience versus a mere transaction, says Norton, whose book, "Business Charisma: How Great Organizations Engage and Win Customers Again and Again," is soon to be released. Think companies like Disney, Apple, Trader Joe's and Harley Davidson, he says.

"Harley-Davidson may have one of the lowest quality scores in their industry," Norton says, "but they rank highest in customer loyalty."

And Starbucks? "They build a personal relationship with the customer, the moment the individual customer's name goes on the cup," he says.

This is great for the company, and something cost-conscious consumers should be aware of when shopping from those brands they feel most loyal to. Is this fleeting moment of happiness you experience worth the money? If the shopping experience really makes you happy, maybe so. But if your constant purchases from the brand are the reason you're always short on cash, perhaps you should seek happiness elsewhere.

But for the most part, the happiness people get from spending money on most products doesn't last long, according to Norton. "Quickly those things we purchase, our trophies, gather dust like so many plaques and awards on some shelf," he says.

Buy something for someone else and not yourself. Sounds suspiciously like talk from the head of a charitable organization, but numerous studies have shown that if you really want to be happy, you'd do well to spend your money on other people -- not yourself. In fact, a high-profile series of studies published in a 2008 issue of Science concluded that even spending $5 a day on someone else, whether a charity or needy stranger, can boost an individual's happiness.

"Using our strengths for a cause larger than ourselves is the real secret to a meaningful life," Roberts says.

Milestone purchases. If you make an impulse buy or tend to habitually buy the latest, greatest items, such as the new-model tablet, your happiness is probably going to dissolve quickly. But that widescreen TV you've always dreamed of having? Or the living room furniture you've been coveting for years? That probably will make you pretty happy, according to Allen Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.

From what he has seen, some types of purchases have made his patients happy, particularly those that symbolize an individual or family reaching a new level in their lifestyle.

"When people work really hard, we typically need a carrot to give us that strength and push us over the hump," Wagner says.

He says for some people, that will be a new car, or maybe a new swimming pool or expensive clothes.

"Typically, it's not a name brand that will lead to happiness. It's a person's ability to make their lifestyle what they always fantasized and imagined it to be," Wagner says.

Joe Luciani, a New York City psychologist who writes self-coaching books, agrees, at least when it comes to the new car purchase. "I've worked with numerous patients throughout the years who were able to find significant happiness and serenity from buying the car of their dreams," he says. "When depressed, anxious, physically limited, or otherwise feeling powerless, that new car seems to offer immediate compensation in the form of refuge, mobility, responsiveness, escape and a sense of total control."

Still, common sense would dictate that if you're going to splurge, be certain that you can afford the car of your dreams -- otherwise, those monthly payments might turn into a nightmare. That's when you'll realize that you aren't actually living the new lifestyle you've been working so hard to hit. You're just paying for a new lifestyle you can't afford.

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