How to Buy Happiness This Holiday Season

We have all heard the adage “money cannot buy happiness.” However, according to the authors of the bestseller “Happy Money”, Elizabeth Dunn, associate Psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and Mike Norton, a Business Administration professor at Harvard Business School, this statement is not entirely true:

Money can buy happiness, depending on what it is you buy.

Dunn and Norton conducted a series of social experiments distilling their findings into five actionable steps — all supported by scientific research.

We have created a cliff notes version, freeing up your time to concentrate on what’s important this time of year.

This holiday season, after you have exhausted hundreds of websites in search of the perfect gift for that special someone, remember that science says you can create happiness by doing the following five things:

1. Buy An Experience

When asked by researchers, people always tend to say that they would rather buy a material good over an experience because they think that the material good will last longer.

However, when those same researchers ask people if they would rather give up the memory of purchasing a material good over the memory of an experience, people are far less willing to trade the memory of an experience.


Because with all material goods, the excitement of having them eventually fades. In contrast, memories of experiences continue to be fondly remembered for much longer.

This means that the opportunity to purchase an experience, activity, or a trip can lead to far more happiness than purchasing an entertainment system.

Besides, when you are catching up with an old friend, which experience would you rather recollect — your one week excursion to a trip to Machu Picchu or your latest purchase a purchase from Best Buy?

Machu Picchu, Peru

2. Make it a Treat

As previously noted, the novelty of owning a material good wears away as the newness fades. Consequently, buying an experience to visit a new destination offers the traveler the opportunity to experience something new and fresh.

For us native San Franciscans, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are staples in the backdrop of our great city. For non-native relatives, these are architectural beauties worthy of ferry rides and photos from every imaginable angle.

Wouldn’t it be nice to treat your favorite aunt from out east and give her the opportunity to see the San Francisco skyline in person?

Alternatively, if you have a more modest budget, how about a spa treatment for her? Would your aunt have purchased those experiences for herself? If she’s not the type of person who would indulge herself that way, that is even more of a reason for you to treat her.

Not surprisingly, research suggests that giving a person something that they wouldn’t purchase for themselves reinforces the experience as a treat, making it extra special and well worth remembering.

3. Pay Now, Consume Later

Along similar lines of making something a “treat,” the anticipation of paying up front but waiting to enjoy something can make the experience even more enjoyable.

Waiting creates uncertainty that intensifies an emotional experience. When the emotional experience at the end of a waiting period is a positive one, the anticipation amplifies the positive experience.

Imagine that, for your parents 30th wedding anniversary, you booked a getaway, telling them that in a few short months they will be on a river cruise traveling down the Danube.

The buildup of anticipation towards the beautiful sights and sounds of the legendary waterway from the moment they learn of the trip to the moment they step foot on the dock will be unforgettable.

Danube river cruise

Alternatively, if you do not have the means to purchase a getaway as a gift, consider the fact that you can “pay now and consume later” by making a meaningful, personal gift.

Instead of the extravagant Danube River cruise for your folks, perhaps make them a collage or photo album of all the family trips you have taken together. From the moment you dig through old photos to the time you hand over the masterpiece, you can find comfort knowing that you didn’t spend much on the gift, but with some time and thought, you created a little piece of happiness for them.

That happiness can be relived whenever they see it and reminisce.

4. Buy Time

Every experience (including chores or work) can be seen as an opportunity cost. They consist of time spent on activities that do not make you happier.

Since we are on the topic of vacations and experiences — ‘pre-planned’ vacations and organized tours can provide meaningful happiness advantages.

In a separate, but related study, happiness expert Shawn Achor surveyed 414 travelers who cited that one of the biggest stressors surrounding travel is wasting time trying to figure out itineraries and plan out transportation logistics. (Have you ever tried to fly into Chengdu, China, and then grab a cab without speaking the local Sichuan dialect? We have and it is not fun!).

Investing in a professionally pre-planned travel package maximizes the enjoyable parts of the vacation, minimizes the stress and hassle.

Furthermore, as most intrepid travelers would agree, depending on what is included in the travel package, you end up saving more money than you would if you planned each section of the trip separately.

If you are the type of person to want to piece together the trip yourself, visit sites like Trip Advisor for hotel and destination reviews, and Hipmunk for flight and hotel search. Using these sites is a great way to maximize your precious time and create your ideal stress-free vacation.

5. Spend on Others

Last but not least, research shows that “pro-social” spending, which means money spent on others is far more correlated to happiness than spending on ourselves.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that those who provide support to family members report better overall health.

The research goes on to suggest that when we feel that our altruism was by choice, the more connected we feel to the recipient, and the more we feel that we have made a positive impact.

Nearing summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Imagine that you had a nephew in college who has been dreaming of hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro. How would it make you feel to see his face light up when you send him the trip itinerary with his name next to a departure date?

Alternatively for a lower budget, you could buy him the next best things to help him prepare for the trip — hiking poles, a multi-day backpack, or hiking boots — the choices are endless!

The beauty of gifting the gear is two-fold — you’re giving him something practical, but also something that helps build his anticipation for his once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

In Conclusion

This holiday season, stop browsing through Amazon to look for gifts that arrive before Christmas.

Instead, help your mom/dad/aunt/uncle/cousin/godson create a memory that they will hold on to for the rest of their lives. Then, sit back, relax and smile, knowing that it you was you who helped make those memories happen.

Inspired to give the gift of experiences? Check out Stride Travel and start searching for your (or a loved one’s) perfect trip.

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