Why You Might Be Happier Buying Less Stuff
December 02, 2021

Why You Might Be Happier Buying Less Stuff

According to the United States Regional Economic Analysis Project, Americans make much more money than they did back in 1958. That’s no surprise until we compare per capita income with the rising cost of living. We earn more money today— a lot more. After an adjustment for inflation, per capita income increased by more than 200 percent.

So why aren’t we happier? The General Social Survey has assessed American levels of happiness since 1972. Each year, they ask people to rate their overall life satisfaction on a three-point scale, where “one” represents “not too happy” and “three” means “very happy.”  On average, American happiness peaked in the early 1990s.  Since then, happiness has declined, revealing the biggest calendar-year drop in 2020 (blame the pandemic for that one).

Separate research confirms the trend.  The World Happiness Reportshowed overall life satisfaction dropped six percent in the United States between 2007 and 2018.  There are several possible reasons.  The American wealth gap is growing.  It’s emotionally tough to see people who have so much more money. And when surveys show growth of per capita income, the measurements are somewhat misleading.  After all, outsized income levels among the top one percent have pushed the average up.  Yet, even when we look at the Pew Research Data on median income levels compared to the cost of living, the trend has been up while happiness has declined.

So, let’s get down to practical advice.  First, you can’t control the wealth gap. And fretting about what we can’t control is a colossal waste of time.  We can, however, control how we spend our money. This might come as a shock, but people who buy less tend to be happier.

I’m not talking about people who are forced to buy less because they’re poor. I’m talking about people who consciously choose to buy less. This might be the best-kept secret to building happiness, health and wealth.  For example, most people who seek happiness through buying material acquisitions are simply less happy.  And happy people with optimistic outlooks tend to live longer.

 Contrary to what marketers want us to believe, material acquisitions don’t boost life satisfaction.  Do you want to upgrade your car because it will make you feel better? Professors Norbert Schwarz, from Michigan State University and professor Jing Xu, from Peking University say that’s bunk.  

Schwartz explains based on research he conducted with different car owners: “During the test drive of a new car, our attention is focused on the car, and the more luxurious it is, the better we feel while driving it. This experience is real, visceral and compelling. What we miss, however, is one simple thing. Once we have owned the car for a few weeks, it no longer captures all of our attention, and other things will be on our minds while driving. As soon as that happens, we would feel just as well driving a cheaper alternative.”

How about a home upgrade to make you smile and laugh more?  Once again, research says such upgrades almost never improve your life.

There’s no set definition for what constitutes a “minimalist.” But my “deserted island litmus test” might help you with decisions. If you’re tempted to buy something unnecessary, ask yourself if you would still buy it if nobody else could see it.  If the answer is yes, go ahead and buy it.  But be ruthless with this assessment. Most people buy things, in part, to be seen having them.  And the truth is, nobody will love you any more or any less based on the stuff you own.

Yes, life satisfaction is about love.  An eight-decade-long Harvard studysays it’s about human connection.  That’s the biggest reason happiness plunged in the year of the pandemic. We were isolated from each other.

And if we buy less stuff, it can give us more time.  For example, we would have more money to hire people to do household chores that we might not want to do.  That frees up time to spend doing what we love. By spending less on material things, we can also invest more money.  This can build our wealth, which could also free up time.  We could dial back on full-time work.  Or, we could take a sabbatical to spend more time with friends and family.

If we buy less, we won’t have to work as hard…to buy things we think will impress other people. By working less, we can spend more time with friends and family.  We can spend more time outdoors.  We can spend more time exercising.  These are keys to a happy life.  Much of the stuff we buy distracts us from what’s most important.

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