Thursday, March 24, 2011

Should I Buy a New Car or Go on an Expensive Vacation

Well, the answer for me is neither. Both my kids are getting married this summer. But if you have a choice and want to know which will ultimately make you happier, Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling On Happiness answers the question in an Atlantic article and says you should pick the vacation:
We favor objects because we think that experiences can be fun but leave us with nothing to show for them. But that turns out to be a good thing. Experiences have the nice property of going away. Cars need repairs, they rust in our driveway, and they ultimately disappoint us enough that we sell them and get new ones. Experiences are like good relatives that stay for a while and then leave. Objects are like relatives who move in and stay past their welcome.

Another reason why experiences beat objects is that experiences are usually social. If you go to Europe you will almost surely go with someone, whereas if you buy the car, you will probably drive it by yourself. We are social animals, and the best predictor of happiness is the goodness and extent of our social relationships. Experiences are more likely to be shared than objects are.
A couple other Q&A's from the article:
You write, "unfettered access to peak experiences may actually be counterproductive." Explain that.

Imagine making love to the person of your dreams. That will be a good day. But the day after will not. The good thing about peak experiences is that they make us happy while we are having them, but the bad thing is that they then serve as a standard of comparison for all the experiences that follow. When researchers looked at lottery winners, they weren't happier than a control group, but they did take less pleasure in everyday events. The big happiness rush you get when you receive the big check is gone pretty soon, and then when good things happen you find yourself saying, "That was nice but it wasn't like the day I won the lottery."

That doesn't mean you should refuse peak experiences. It just means you should ask yourself, "If I have this peak experience, will it make the rest of my life dull and unsatisfying?"

What's the most controversial suggestion in the paper?

If one thing surprises most folks, it might be the suggestion to buy many small things rather than fewer big things. If you asked people if they'd prefer an ice cream cone every Monday for the next few weeks or a great meal at a French restaurant, most would probably take the great meal gift certificate. But it turns out that the frequency of positive events is a better predictor of happiness than intensity of those positive events.
I prefer beer to ice cream but it makes sense to me. And I rarely come away from an expensive restaurant satisfied that the meal or experience was worth the price.

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