Buying yourself something awesome — new coat, new car, new house — probably isn’t the best investment in your long-term happiness.
As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s research has found, we’re just too adaptable.
“After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor to install in a new condo,” Gilbert and his coauthors say in a paper, “homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet. In contrast, their memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight.”
We adapt quickly to things that don’t change, his and others’ research has found, and when we’re fully adapted to something, we don’t notice how awesome (or terrible) that thing is.
As Gilbert argues in his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” this is both a great advantage and a disadvantage to well-being. On the positive side, our happiness levels tend to stabilise after bad things happen to us, like getting divorced, getting fired, and other catastrophes. On the negative side, we get used to nice things like hardwood floors.
That’s why, Gilbert says, buying experiences is a better investment in your happiness. If you take a cooking class every week for a year, every experience will feel new enough for you to get fresh enjoyment out of each.
But there’s another reason major purchases never seem to fill the void: We fail to imagine what owning something will really be like. For example, a recent poll showed that a majority of Canadians wished they could own a cozy cottage by a lake — all without the many annoyances that accompany such a thing, like mosquitoes, plumbing disasters, and kids complaining of the like.
It happens to the rich and famous, too.
Actor George Clooney regrets buying his oh-so-cool Tesla Roadster.
“I had a Tesla,” he told Esquire. “I was one of the first cats with a Tesla. I think I was, like, number five on the list. But I’m telling you, I’ve been on the side of the road a while in that thing. And I said to them, ‘Look, guys, why am I always stuck on the side of the fucking road? Make it work, one way or another.'”
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