The pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness often get equated, especially in our success-addled culture. But over the past decade or so, science has set us straight on two points: First, once you have escaped poverty, more money won't buy you more happiness. There's little difference in the overall happiness of millionaires and the middle class. And second, if you are going to spend your money in search of greater happiness, you're better off buying experiences rather than things.
Why? As German scholar Stefan Klein, author of “The Science of Happiness,” argues, “Things per se cannot bring you happiness at all. It is only the 'experience' of possessing something that can trigger an emotion. So possessions can trigger happiness, but only as long as that experience of having a bigger car is new.” In other words: Goods tarnish over time. Experiences, on the other hand, says Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” can get better as you remember them, particularly if you're one of those people who tend to embellish a bit. (How big was that fish again?)
All of which raises an important question: What types of experiences will give you the biggest bang for the buck? Assuming money is a limited resource (and unless your surname is Gates or Trump, it probably is), where should you put your hard-earned cash in order to bring the biggest, longest-lasting smile to your face? Here the science is less certain, but we're starting to see a consensus form around the following ideas:
- Follow your (everyday) bliss. Most of us don't pay a lot of attention to the smaller, day-to-day occurrences that make us happy. We focus on the negative. The driver who cut you off on the parkway on the way to work is likely to be dinner table conversation. That nice walk you took in the park at lunchtime? Probably not. “It isn't enough to be happy,” Klein notes. “You have to be aware enough to enjoy that happiness.” One way to raise your awareness, he suggests, is to keep a happiness diary. Before you turn out the light, jot down what made you happy that day and assign the experience a score of 1 to 10. After a couple of weeks, you'll realize that certain experiences make you happier than others and that you have good times even on very bad days.
- Savor the warm-up. “Anticipation is where the greatest pleasure lies,” Klein explains. What's better than a first kiss? The butterflies in your stomach when you know that first kiss is on its way. As you look for experiences that suit you, focus on those that have a long lead time-and then enjoy the journey there. If the experience is a vacation, for instance, savor the planning. Read guidebooks. Surf the Web. Discuss options with your traveling companions. You'll find yourself excited about the whole process, not just the trip itself.
- Do something new. Remember the first time you tasted champagne or caviar? It was exciting. But if you have it every night? The thrill wears off. For some people novelty is particularly stimulating. About 25 percent of us may have a variant of dopamine receptor in our brain that makes us especially curious. If that includes you (and your happiness journal should clue you in if you're not reading this while on safari in Namibia), you'll need more new experiences than others.
- Do something selfless. Giving money away is one way to feed your financial soul, but you also get a happiness jolt by getting more actively involved in social causes, says Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser, author of “The High Price of Materialism.” People who are focused on fame, money and success are not as happy as those who put their energies into challenges that are less me-centered. Why? In part because there's always more fame and money to chase.
- Find work you love. Where does work fit into the experience-you-love hierarchy? For most people it's nowhere near the top. That was the finding of two Princeton University professors, economist Alan Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who, along with colleagues from three other universities, studied 900 employed women in Texas. The women were asked to reconstruct their previous days' activities and their feelings about them in a diary. Of the 16 activities ranked, work was by far the one that took up the most time. Yet work ranked second from the bottom in terms of the positive emotions it created. It doesn't have to be this way. People who are most satisfied with their jobs have found work that is challenging but not impossible, that offers a degree of autonomy (from being able to put a couch in their office to having some freedom with their hours) and that involves a task in which they can sometimes get so immersed that they forget to eat, check e-mail or even go to the bathroom. It's unrealistic to expect such immersion every day, but those who find it from time to time are significantly happier. Research also shows that making trade-offs for a higher salary, such as accepting a longer commute or giving up time with family and friends, is rarely worth it.
- If you're at a loss? Do something physical. The reaction the body has to exercise is similar to the one it has to excitement. Your muscles relax. Your pulse rises. Endorphins kick in. “Activity intensifies both the anticipation and the experience itself,” Klein says. So spending $75 a month on that gym membership-and actually using it-won't just get you in better shape, it'll make you happier. After all, who doesn't feel better after a good sweat?
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .