"Money can't buy happiness." We've all heard the adage, but what if science proved that, to a certain extent, money does make you happier?

The relationship between the two is exactly what San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Psychology Ryan Howell, Ph.D., has been studying for more than 15 years.

It's easy to understand that someone who has enough to cover housing, food, and clothing is almost always happier than a person who struggles to pay the bills. "Let me put it this way, people are much more likely to smile if they have a higher income," Dr. Howell says.

However, once you're able to provide for your basic needs, money and material items are a lot less likely to make you truly happy. Instead, says Howell, experiences do.

According to a 2010 report in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," after reaching an income of about $75,000, happiness becomes about much more than money.

Why We Buy

If it's true that experiences — like taking a trip, eating a delicious dinner, reading to a child, learning how to ski — make us smile the most, why do we keep spending money on things?

It's easier to see the economic value of a tangible thing as compared to an experience, which only leaves you with memories, explains Howell. "Even though [people are] told experiences will make them happier, and they know experiences will make them happier, they still perceive material items as being a better value."

And it's also true that not just any experience will make you feel more content.

"If your goal is to be happier, you should ask yourself if your purchase will bring you closer to being your true, authentic self," Howell recommends. For example, a baseball fan would be much happier buying tickets to a game versus seeing a ballet performance.

"The buyer must take into account their personal values," advises Howell. "If you spend your money buying yourself experiences that will bring you closer to your friends and family — and you feel that your identity is remaining true to who you are — you will be a happier person."

 

Dr. Ryan Howell is director of San Francisco State's Personality and Well-Being Lab, where he and a team of student researchers study the development, personality, motivation, values and beliefs of people's economic conditions and financial decision-making. Learn more about his money and happiness research.