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When stress runs high and cash runs low, it’s reassuring to know that our experiences, not our possessions, are our main source of happiness. The emotional boost we get from (say) a walk in the woods or trying quidditch with friends outlasts the pleasure of a new phone or pair of jeans, research shows.

How much does happiness matter?

We all know that happiness feels great. What may be surprising is how comprehensively it helps us thrive. “There’s a lot of research showing happiness is a good thing not just because it makes us feel good but because happier people are more successful in life,” says Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

“Happier people are healthier, more productive, more creative, and more charitable. They have more successful relationships and make more money. The evidence is pretty strong that good things come to those who are happier.”

Why is happiness so powerful?

Research suggests that “in-the-moment positive emotions” (such as affection, curiosity, compassion, love, and amusement) build our coping resources—our ability to handle challenges and stress. This in turn gives us access to a more satisfying life. “For example, idle curiosity can become expert knowledge, or affection and shared amusement can become a lifelong supportive relationship,” says a 2009 study in the journal Emotion.

How can we become happier?

More good news: Happiness is accessible. The college years, with all their demands and anxieties, are the perfect time to go get it. How? By gathering experiences, not stuff. Here’s why this works:

We are our experiences
“Who you are is the sum of your experiences but not the sum of your things,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky, who is the author of The Myths of Happiness (Penguin, 2013).“Nobody would say that your identity is the kind of car you drive. Who you are as a person is more about all the experiences you’ve had throughout your life.” In a study, students reported that experiences made them feel more alive than possessions did, according to the Journal of Positive Psychology (2009).

We value our experiences
Even when an experience goes wrong, we appreciate it. “People tend to focus on what they learned or how they grew as a result of something negative,” says
Dr. Lyubomirsky—e.g., getting caught in a thunderstorm on a first date becomes a funny story.

In contrast, we are all familiar with the buyer’s remorse that can follow a shopping trip.

Experiences have staying power
The memories and feelings associated with our experiences stick with us, especially if we remember and tell stories about them. In contrast, the initial spark of joy we get from tangible purchases tends to fade within weeks, experts say.

“One of the reasons [we buy stuff] is the sensible-sounding idea that if you purchase an experience it’ll probably be fun, but then it will be over, and if you buy something it will always be there,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, happiness researcher and professor of psychology at Cornell University. “The problem is we adapt to our things, and even though they last physically, it’s our experiences that live on in the identity we form and the connections we make.”

We don’t harshly compare experiences
If you study abroad in Australia and then your roommate takes a semester in Argentina, you’re probably not going to compare those experiences in a way that makes you feel bad. On the other hand, if you score a new phone shortly before your friend buys the updated model, your excitement might fizzle. A 2010 analysis of eight studies confirmed that we tend to ruminate on and compare the stuff we buy more than we doubt the value of our experiences (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

Experiences help us relate
Experiences often strengthen our relationships. You sign up to run a race with your roommates, you see a concert with your buddies, you take a road trip with a cousin.

“The social aspect is really one of the keys to happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky says. “Shared experiences can do a lot, and people can anticipate and reminisce about them together.”

Exception: Some purchases lead to experiences
Some purchases are “experiential”; we buy a mountain bike or guitar to give us access to certain experiences. As long as we actually ride the bike or play the guitar, these purchases will likely do more for our happiness than a purely material purchase would, according to studies by Dr. Gilovich and others.

Wine aficionados might get joy out of a beautifully crafted piece of glassware. When they drink from it, they smile at its form and function, and talk with their wine-loving friends about the glass, the shape, the air flow, and the taste. In this way, the possessions of a connoisseur lean more toward the experiential.

How to get the most happiness from your experiences and your cash

As you consider how to spend your time and money, bear in mind the reasons that experiences bring us more pleasure than possessions do.

1. Choose experiences that contribute to who you are and that build your identity in a positive way: Try something new, take a class, or develop a skill. “Think about the experience of watching TV and having an identity of ‘I’m a TV watcher.’ How gratifying is that? Not terribly. But if you’re out in the wilderness camping with friends and have the identity of ‘I’m adventurous,’ that’s likely to be very gratifying,” says Dr. Gilovich.

2. Look for opportunities and situations that connect you with others: Start a hiking group that meets on weekends, or join a tennis league. If you’re a big reader, try a book club to add the social element.

3. Nurture your memories: Record your thoughts, insights, memories, and stories in a journal you can read and reread. Value pictures and gifts that elicit fond memories. Print some of your photos and keep them visible so you recall those
good times. 

4. Value free and low-cost experiences: “A lot of experiences that provide a lot of happiness aren’t very expensive,” says Dr. Gilovich.

  • Look within and beyond your college or university environment: Find parks, trails, beaches, pools, and so on. “Take advantage of these settings for a gratifying break from the grind that school can be,” says Dr. Gilovich.
  • Read: Reading about an experience looks much the same on brain scans as actually having that experience, according to a 2011 study in the Annual Review of Psychology. Reading builds our empathy (enhancing our relationships) and emotional health, and puts us into a relaxed, meditative state, studies show.

Why does an experience or possession make you happy?

We asked students to focus on just one experience or possession that makes them happy. Then we asked: Which of the following apply?

Effect: Percentage saying yes:
It gives me a sense of accomplishment 51%
It rewards my senses (art, nature, etc.) 48%
It changes how I spend my time, for the better 48%
It strengthens or represents my connection to others 47%
It helps me become a better person 47%
It ties into my identity in a meaningful way 46%
It gives me a sense of purpose 45%
It can be an entertaining story to tell others 43%
It helps me cope with my problems 39%
It facilitates a reasonable standard of living for me 27%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, July 2015. 1,526 students answered this question.

How to stop buying stuff that won’t make you happy

6 ways to stop buying stuff that won’t make you happy

1. Before you buy, ask yourself three questions:

  • How likely is it that this purchase will shape who I am, help me grow and learn, or help me see myself in a positive way?
  • How likely is it that this purchase will connect me with others in a meaningful way or strengthen my relationships?
  • How likely is it that I will remember and tell stories about this purchase?

2. Are you excited, intoxicated, sad, angry, or bored?: Then be wary of going near the stores—you’re more likely to make impulsive purchases and experience buyer’s remorse, according to a 2014 survey by CreditCards.com.

3. Before you buy, consider the downsides:

  • Possessions cost time, as in the time you had to work to make the money to pay for them.
  • Possessions get damaged or go missing, causing stress.
  • The pleasure of new possessions fades quickly.
  • Possessions may become associated with regret, negative comparisons, and envy.
  • Possessions may become clutter. In a study involving 60 women, clutter was associated with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and a depressed mood, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010).

4. Do your research: Need a new laptop or jeans? When students researched a product before buying, they experienced less buyer’s remorse, in a study by Jisook Park at Kansas State University in 2011. “You have to make sure that the amount of effort that you put forth is justifiable to you,” Park told Consumer Affairs. “If you’re satisfied with the amount of effort that you have put in, then you are less likely to experience regret.”

5. Declutter: The pleasure of clean, organized space may make it easier to stop buying things you don’t need. Marie Kondo, author of the bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Ten Speed Press, 2014), recommends pulling out everything you own and asking yourself “Does it spark joy?” Yes? Keep. No? Donate, recycle, or toss.

6. Check out these tips from students:

  • Make a list and stick to it.
  • Avoid stores and malls.
  • Carry cash only.
  • Leave your money at home.
  • Think about how much you’ve spent on things you didn’t need in the past. Use this as a learning experience (not to beat yourself up).
  • Eat snacks at home before you run errands or go shopping, to avoid overspending on groceries.
  • Set a savings goal, like a computer or vacation, and pare down your spending to meet it.
  • Before you buy something, pause for 5–10 minutes and ask yourself whether it is a “want” or a “need.”
  • Keep most of your funds in a savings account; every month, transfer enough into your checking account to cover your living expenses. Significant unplanned purchases will require an inconvenient bank transfer.

Source: Student Health 101 survey, July 2015.

Students’ stories: What makes you happy?

We asked students: Which you would rather receive as a gift?

  • An experience (e.g., a gift certificate for a restaurant or activity; concert tickets) -- 62%
  • A possession (e.g., clothes; gadgets) -- 38%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, July 2015. 1,569 students answered this question.

We asked students: What has recently made you happier? Your responses were overwhelmingly about experiences, not material possessions.

“I went to a music festival with three of my best friends for four days—an incredible experience. Afterwards I just felt recharged. Everything I have been doing—school, work—all seems worth it now. I have a renewed sense of purpose. I no longer feel like I’m doing this stuff just to survive.”
—Spencer B., third-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey

“Hiking alone, slowly, in the mountains helped me reconnect with the natural world, with what’s real and with my own natural self, and to disconnect from words, goals, opinions, and information.”
—Elizabeth G., second-year undergraduate, Front Range Community College, Colorado

“I’m a transgender man, and a year ago I had top surgery to remove my breasts and reconstruct my chest to appear more masculine. The surgery left scars across my chest. Last weekend I went to a queer kink street fair and for the first time took my shirt off for the day. Although I had a few negative interactions with people, I also had several people come take photos with or of me. It felt good to finally overcome that fear.”
—Nick M., fifth-year undergraduate, Sonoma State University, California

“I bought a new set of speakers and I’ve noticed a drastic increase in my overall happiness. Music speaks to me, and I love hearing every little detail.”
—Sal I., second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University

“I spent a night talking about problems with a good friend. This experience made me happier because it was nice to have someone to listen to, respect, and empathize with me. We laughed and we cried together.”
—Lauren L., fourth-year undergraduate, Davidson College, North Carolina

“On a recent vacation I decided to go for a solo bike ride on a coastal road. Road biking is enjoyable for me, and I love feeling like I have a purpose to be outside. But more importantly, I felt in control of my situation, like I was taking charge and being responsible for my own happiness.”
—Luke W., second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University

“I went to a play. Every experience like that opens your eye and mind to a new artistic perspective, sharpening your imagination and appreciation.”
—Thiago A., third-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Boston


By Happify Inc.

Kerry Johnson

Kerry Johnson: Fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder majoring in English and creative writing; Student Health 101 Student Advisory Board 2015–16.

“Happify has one simple, pure goal: to increase happiness. This app is designed to reduce negative thoughts, alleviate self-doubt, reveal new perspectives, and instill healthy habits that go hand in hand with feeling happy.”

Raincloud following you? This app can help you break out of a slump and back into a healthy, active mindset.
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The games make us feel like we’re just mindlessly playing with our phone while we’re actually gaining happiness tools.
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The meditation tool helped me most. Now I seriously enjoy looking at a scenic lake with lapping water. Never thought I’d say that.
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Sarah Moran is author of the Take Care book series, which covers food, movement, body care, home environment, sleep, balance, and spirit. Sarah’s goal is to make it easier for readers to make the most of life. She has written for Mayo Clinic, Experience Life magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.