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Money Can Buy Happiness, But Gilovich Missed One Key Part

Recently there has been a fascinating study done by Dr. Thomas Gilovich and Travis Carter at Cornell University which puts forth the assertion that we find the most happiness when we chose to spend our money on experiences rather than stuff. Many you will have likely heard of this study as I did via an article on Fast Company, which is quickly making the interweb rounds.

At first read, the article and the study strike a cord with those that travel, especially those who travel as a permanent way of life. We exist for experiences. We are often the first to preach leaving all of the belongings, the stuff, that you think you need in order to be happy, and going to travel with nothing but a backpack and a smile. We write blogs about how to travel on the cheap and how to find hidden treasures just about anywhere. We post pictures of insanely beautiful landscapes from destinations where the people around us sometimes literally have nothing. We swim with the creatures of the sea and walk with beasts 20x our size. And we dance under nothing but stars and full moons, perfectly content in the simplicity of a cheap drink and quality company.

The travel lifestyle quite simply exudes everything that the study proposes as truth for the entirety of the first world. And everyone who I saw posting that article or sharing it with me (or who I shared it with), we are all in this group of experienced travelers. We know the truth behind that study because we are its living proof.

But here’s what that study fails to capture – while we might find greater, longer term happiness ultimately in experiences versus attained stuff, it is the engrained desire to attain that stuff that ultimately gave us the resources to even be able to make the choice of “spend my money on an experience or on a thing.”

Western culture is inherently dependent on a driving desire to achieve status via material goods. It is all around us. Hell, it has been my career for over a decade – getting entire masses to think that they need a given item because it will make them or their child happier, more satisfied, or simply “cooler” by having it. This year, more than 25 companies were willing to dish out upwards of $4.5M in exchange for 30 seconds of air time during the Superbowl to, guess what, sell you more stuff. You are bombard everyday with flashing deals on the street, on the screens in front of you, even via incognito methods which you might not even realize are tactics designed to get you to buy, yep you guessed it, more stuff.

Plenty may say that they don’t give into the brand name hype or the advertising tactics, but all that means is that you’re a bit more savvy with your money and how, when and what stuff you buy. It does not, however, preclude you from the stuff-buying masses. You are just happy for your stuff to be “own brands” or generic items rather then the higher priced branded items. It’s still all stuff.

Even those (in Western cultures) who now claim to have freed themselves from the constraints of material things, make those claims from a place of once knowing the bonds that those possessions created over them. Because as the saying goes, “You won’t recognize the sweet if you never tasted the sour.”

I never would have had the means to start my adventure if I hadn’t spent the past decade trying to attain all of the stuff I told myself I needed (and let’s face it, that I was told I needed to have in order to appear “successful.”) The clothes, bags and shoes, sure, but also that good old “American dream” itself – a house, a nice car, a couple of kids and dog, along with the ability to cloth, feed, and educate them. These things drove me to climb the ranks, negotiate higher salaries, constantly strive to be better at what I did so I could gain recognition and a higher status. And of course the bigger and more expensive the attained things are, the more successful the person must be as well. That is the correlation that we are trained to respond to, and we all fall privy to it. We splash our things across Facebook with pride. We walk into our offices with the latest bags adorning our arms. We even turn no name people into celebrities on Instagram for essentially being mass slingers of promoted stuff.

Stuff makes the world go round.

A friend helped to put all of this – the study, the cultural fascination with stuff, experience-attained happiness – into perspective after I shared the article with him. He pointed out that without his car, he would not have the same accessibility to many of the experiences that bring him happiness every single weekend. While of course, there are certainly ways for him to still participate in all of the activities he listed, I took his point that his stuff gives him a better ability to have those experiences more often. He appreciates his stuff and this has translated into a higher level of happiness for him.

It made me think of my own experiences with my Baby, my Acura, which I had for about a year and a half when I lived in California. I was so proud of myself for having worked hard to land a job that afforded me that luxury all on my own. She took me to meet friends, which turned into nights out and memories that I will always cherish. She took me on road trips up the coast of California, witnessing sunset views in Big Sur and through the wine country around Santa Barbara. She provided a place to belt out tunes when me and the girls just needed a solid sing-a-long sesh to get it all out. These are all experiences afforded to me by something that Gilovich and Carter’s study classifies as “stuff.” And while I do agree with the study, it is ultimately the experiences which have had the most impact on my happiness, it was my driving desire (pun intended) to have an object which allowed for many of those experiences to happen in the first place.

Which brings me back to the missing piece of the study: Having that thing, a car, is also what has now led me to fully appreciate and understand the beauty of never needing to own a car again. That realization is a personal journey and a decision that everyone must comes to in their own time – when are you ready to let go of your stuff?

I am now most comfortable in places where I can use public transport to get around (city girl) or where I need nothing but my legs (beach life). And when it comes to going longer distances, if I’m really craving a road trip with some friends, or just need the convenience again, I can rent a car. But honestly, I genuinely enjoy using buses, trains and planes more, namely because it means I have the opportunity to meet all kinds of new people, and that’s an experience in itself.

The desire to have stuff drives us to achieve certain goals in life (namely monetary) which allow us to have the right resources to start new journeys. And the stuff itself gives us an appreciation, and a distinct clarity to understand what we really need in terms of material objects in order to be happy and healthy. For me, everything I need in terms of stuff exists in one (rather large) rolling backpack and a carry-on bag. I know that I find, as the study asserts, greater happiness in spending my money on experiences, but I also know that if I had not spent a lifetime trying to attain a bunch of stuff, I would not have achieved the resources that I needed to start this journey of experiences. Nor would I have such clarity on what stuff I really need versus what I can do without so as to have a new experience instead.

Treasure the stuff. Appreciate what it brings to life. Let it drive your desire to achieve greater attained resources. And then, when you are ready, let the stuff go. Begin a transition toward making experiences the reason for working harder and saving more money. Let the knowledge of what you felt with that stuff drive your understanding of how much happier you are after a trip to play with penguins at the zoo, or after an amazing week in Hawaii laying on soft sandy beaches, or after zip lining through the jungles of South America. Stuff, in comparison to sweet experiences, really is the “sour” of the two, but with everything we are force fed everyday, is it any wonder that we make stuff our “sweet” so much more often?

To tasting the real sweetness of happiness…

And as always, Happy Falling!

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Caiti Donovan is a writer, digital marketer, and travel aficionado. After building a 10+ year career in marketing and branding, a series of events caused her to re-evaluate her approach toward life, achieving happiness and her pursuit of success. She set out on on an adventure, lovingly dubbed a Cosmic Trust Fall, in which she began to hand over all control to the Universe in an effort to let go of the things that had previously shackled her existence. Her blog - - provides a raw and honest narration of this journey. Filled with insights, helpful tips, and plenty of photos, Cosmic Trust Fall aims to become a source of inspiration for life AFTER work. It is a place where those intrigued by the thought of traveling for a living can find the means and motivation to take the leap into the arms of the Cosmos, find real happiness and their own definition of success.

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