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We spend a lot of time talking about ways to be happier, and for good reason: Not only does it feel great, but research shows happiness can actually make you 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,” she says. “The evidence is pretty strong that good things come to those who are happier.”

So how do we get happy?

Happiness is a lot easier to tap into than you might think. The key: Prioritize experiences, not stuff. Research shows that spending time and money on experiences (instead of on material goods) makes us feel happier and more satisfied, according to a 2015 review of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

It may seem counterintuitive, but our experiences stick with us far longer than the quick happiness high you get from buying a new pair of shoes or the newest gadget. Memories and feelings associated with our experiences stay with us—especially if we remember and tell stories about them. “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 asked students: Which would you rather receive as a gift?

An experience

(e.g., concert tickets)

A possession

(e.g., clothes; gadgets)

Source: Student Health 101 survey, March 2019

How to reach peak happiness

happy guy against yellow wall

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 very. 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 a social element.

“I recently went on a weekend road trip with some friends. It was great to get away from campus and school life for a while and just relax & have fun.” —Julia R., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Maine, Orono3. 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.

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

It strengthens or represents my connection to others 55%
It ties into my identity in a meaningful way 50%
It rewards my senses (art, nature, etc.) 49%
It gives me a sense of accomplishment 48%
It changes how I spend my time, for the better 46%
It gives me a sense of purpose 43%
It can be an entertaining story to tell others 42%
It helps me become a better person 41%
It helps me cope with my problems 37%
It facilitates a reasonable standard of living for me 22%

5. Buy things that help facilitate fulfilling experiences

Buying things isn’t all bad, especially when those things help you have experiences that make you happy. For example, you can buy a mountain bike or guitar to give you access to certain experiences. As long as you actually ride the bike or play the guitar, these purchases will likely do more for your happiness than a purely material purchase would, according to studies by Dr. Gilovich and others.

“I volunteer at a local middle school to help with their jazz band once a week. I love music, and I love teaching children, so it truly is the brightest part of my week. I feel fulfilled and that I’ve given something of importance to the community.”
—Jackson L.*, second-year undergraduate, University of Maine, Orono

“I had a guys’ night with my dad and brothers, which is something we don’t do too often. It made me happier because I enjoy doing things with my family, but school and work make it difficult.”
Michel K., second-year graduate student, Florida International University College of Law, Miami 

“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

“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, Houghton

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utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

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Article sources

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, professor of psychology, Cornell University.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology, University of California, Riverside.

Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 146–159. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20053039

Cohn, M. A., Frederickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., et al. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368.

Dovey, C. (2015, June 9.) Can reading make you happier? New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier

Gilovich, T., & Kumar, A. (2015). We’ll always have Paris: The hedonic payoff from experiential and material investments. In James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna (Eds.). Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 51 (147–187). Burlington, Vermont: Academic Press.

Gilovich, T., Kumar, A., Jampol, L. (2015). A wonderful life: Experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(1), 152–165. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2014.08.004

Howell, R. T., & Hill, G. (2009). The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 511–522.

Huffman, M. (2011, April 8). How to avoid buyer’s remorse. Consumer Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2011/04/how-to-avoid-buyer-s-remorse.html

Kumar, A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Talking about what you did and what you have: Differential story utility from experiential and material purchases. In Simona Botti and Aparna Labroo (Eds.), Advances in consumer research volume 41. Duluth, Minnesota: Association for Consumer Research. Retrieved from http://acrwebsite.org/volumes/1014578/volumes/v41/NA-41

Lyubomirsky, S. L., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 14, 803–855.

Merzer, M. (2014, November 23). Survey: Three in four Americans make impulse purchases. CreditCards.com. Retrieved from http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/impulse-purchase-survey.php

Saxbe, D. E., & Repetti, R. (2010). No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 71–81. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19934011

Student Health 101 survey, March 2019.

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193–1202.