What makes us happy? The counterintuitive findings of science

What makes us happyThere are many factors that influence your happiness. Some might say it’s the little things in life. A physically active person will swear it’s exercise. Almost everybody will agree that having close relations to other people is what makes us happy. I’m not talking about these things. I’m talking about money. How to spend money so that they bring you as much happiness as possible? There are two possible choices.


You know that feeling when you buy something new? Something that you really needed or wanted for a long time? For example, a new car. It will make your life so much easier. You can get to places much faster. Forget walking everywhere or adapting yourself to ridiculous bus schedules. Not to mention the car’s shiny color, the fresh interior, that smooth feeling when you drive. There are so many joys a new car brings!

Does a new car bring happiness?If you didn’t have a car before, this purchase will improve the quality of your daily life. In result, you will be happier! However, will anything improve if you had a car and just bought a new one? Sure, your old car was getting noisy and troublesome. It wasn’t looking well anymore and you were sick and tired of it. So you changed it. How long will your new car bring you joy? The car might work well for years, but you will get used to it after a few months. It won’t excite you anymore. It will become an inherent, natural part of your life. So it goes without saying that such things aren’t precisely what makes us happy. Otherwise, we would be crazy with happiness all the time!

There is a difference between buying something you need and something you want. If it improves your life – way to go. If it doesn’t, will it bring any real happiness?


Imagine having all the money you need for a new car. And then spending them on a marvelous journey to the other side of the globe. If you’re in Europe, it might be Australia or South America. With all that money you could spend a month in there. Traveling hundreds of miles all across exotic plains or mountains. If you have common sense you might say:

“Wait a minute. Spend all that money I’ve been saving for a few happy moments? A new car would last me years and years!”

It would last, that’s right. However, we’re talking about happiness, aren’t we? As we’ve seen, the happiness a new car brings will last a month or so. Even the journey to Australia might last longer than that. And how much happiness would such journey bring?

Travel brings happiness

It would make sense to think that we’re happy as long as the journey lasts and no longer than that. The truth is quite the opposite. An experience makes us happy not only when we’re living in it, but also when we remember it. Sometimes, the memory can make you even happier than the actual experience did. So regarding long-term feelings, remembrance is what makes us truly happy. What I mean here is remembrance of something that doesn’t belong to your usual world. The new car belongs to your usual world. You buy it precisely because you want it to be a part of your everyday life. A meeting with a local farmer who showed you his ostrich farm and served you ostrich stew isn’t usual. That’s why you enjoy remembering it in the first place.


Happiness economics seems to draw the same counterintuitive conclusion. According to the Easterlin paradox, a higher income does not directly relate to the happiness of people. In other words, money can buy happiness only up to a point. However, what it compares is consumption of bought items and experiences that cost less or nothing at all. While travel usually requires money, it is the same kind of experience. So it brings happiness regardless of how much it costs. Thomas D. Gilovich from Cornell University explains this difference:

Thomas Gilovich“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

Gilovich also says that the same rule applies to activities with other people. Consuming something together produces less joy than experiencing something together. That is, it is far more enjoyable to travel with friends than to watch TV shows with them.

Not to mention the treadmill of consumerism. According to James Roberts, it is easy to get used to buying new material goods. They make us happy. We just don’t notice how short-lived this happiness is. We try to keep it up by buying new stuff all the time. However, spending lots of money to have lots of useless junk that gives us no joy wasn’t what we wanted.

So the next time you want to buy a car, think of what makes us happy. Maybe travelling would be a better option?