independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Simon Kelner: Happiness? Give me 'stuff' over experiences any day

The authors of new happiness study have missed life's finer joys

Many of you will have seen the sensational news at the weekend that, after all, money can buy you love. Or, if not love, then at least health and happiness.

According to a paper written by three American psychologists, wealthy people have a better diet, more free time, more fulfilling jobs, nicer holidays and, I suppose, more stuff. And if they put their money to work wisely, they can indeed be happier, too.

Not exactly earth-shattering news, but what took my attention were the authors' suggestions for changing our spending habits to open the gates to happiness. I found I could make an equally convincing case for behaving in precisely the opposite way.

For instance, the authors advise to buy experiences rather than things. No object can provide as much lasting pleasure as "seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari". I've been on safari only once, and as well as having a nasty dose of the runs, and waking up to the terrifying sight of an iguana in my tent, I couldn't help feeling that the Masai Mara, with its Land Rovers full of camera-toting tourists, had become a glorified theme park. Give me my plasma telly any day.

Next, they advise us to "pay now and consume later" on the basis that delayed gratification is psychologically beneficial and will help us to avoid impulse purchases. Wrong! Consume now and pay later, that's my advice. The pleasure of having – even for a moment – something for which you haven't yet paid is hard to beat. (Warning: this only works with items you could afford in the first place.)

Then they tell you to buy less insurance, suggesting that we should rely on our "primal coping strategies" when something goes wrong. I'm not sure how my primal coping strategy would have coped with having my golf clubs nicked recently if I hadn't a very nice young lady in Warwickshire at the end of a phone offering to replace them.

So we come to the book's advice to "beware of comparison shopping". This may "distract consumers from the attributes of a product".

Sorry? Have they not felt the surge of joy, that indefinable delight that derives from thinking we're ahead of the game? We've backed a horse at odds better than the starting price (it almost doesn't matter that it loses), or we've saved ourselves hundreds of pounds shopping around for (dare I say it) insurance. These little victories, my friends, are what really constitute pecuniary pleasure.

It's not the fact that we have made a financially sound deal, it's the profound enjoyment of having our judgement vindicated. And as many of us start another week attempting to earn our way to happiness, it would do well to bear in mind Dorothy Parker's famous words: "If you want to know what God thinks about money, look at the people He has given it to."

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