Will That Purchase Really Make You Happier? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

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If you can relate to the proverbial hamster on a wheel in your quest to have a bigger house, or nicer clothes, science can explain why.

The “hedonic treadmill” is what psychologists call our innate desire for bigger, better pleasures—like a bigger house, or splashier car—each time we get a raise or bonus.

But there’s literally a catch to this phrase: Those same psychologists know that acquiring these trophies won’t make a meaningful blip on our happiness radar.

What Our Genes Have to Do With It

In this “unfortunate feature of human psychology, you keep running, but stay in the same place, happiness-wise,” explains Julia Galef, president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality. “We’ve been shaped by the forces of evolution,” she says “and we’ve inherited our ancestors’ insatiability.”

Why were they hell-bent on acquisition, even back in the my-cave-is-bigger-than-your-cave days? “Our genes ‘want’ us to pursue more and more resources, and status, because those things help our genes spread to the next generation,” she explains. “But our genes don’t particularly care whether we enjoy those hard-won prizes once we get them.”

Put another way: Which of our ancestors do you think were most successful? The ones who sat around the fire, sighing and were content with their lives? Or the ones who were never satisfied with what they had and always chasing more wealth, power and status? The second group would dominate—which means we’re their descendants, and we’ve inherited their tastes for more, bigger, better.

A More Modern Take on Happiness

It’s the age-old question: Can a bigger house really make us happier? And the answer is, it depends.

“If a bigger house means you have the space to do things you value, like work from home or comfortably entertain a large family or group of friends, the increased space could bring happiness,” says executive coach Syble Solomon, founder of LifeWise Strategies/Money Habitudes. But, she adds, it’s a matter of perspective: “If you don’t have friends to entertain, or you don’t follow through with a home-based business, and you were using ‘lack of space’ as your excuse, now you’ll be even unhappier.”

It’s filling that large home with people you love and sharing special moments together that separates lasting fulfillment from the fleeting kind. And even then, it’s not the house that’s delivering the happy. It’s the experiences and the people—two components Galef says are essential to the happiness equation.

Experts agree that you can move the needle on the happiness meter by being more thoughtful about how you use your money and time.

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