Sharing Matters Most When Trying To Buy Happiness

Every holiday season, people splurge on gift items to make their loved ones smile - but does buying all that stuff really make people happy? Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax about buying happiness.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, infants are tested and screened for all kinds of illnesses, but a new report shows some hospitals are waiting too long to process those screening tests. The results could be bad. We're going to talk more about that in a few minutes but first, to happiness and the holidays.

You might still be looking for a thing or two to put under the tree, or stuff into a stocking. Americans love showering their friends and family with gifts, about an average of $900 a season. But for a long time, getting material things - furniture, TVs, those new Nikes, the PS4 - meant you were living the American dream. But for many people, all that stuff comes with a huge price tag - too much stress, too much debt.

Since the recession started in 2008, more and more economists and psychologists have been trying to figure out what actually makes us happy, and if we can buy it. Joining us now to explain, NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back ,as always.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, great to be with you.

HEADLEE: So when we talk about buying happiness, we're not talking - are we? - about the essentials - your rent, your food. I mean, I have to assume that if you don't have enough for food, you're not going to be happy.

GEEWAX: Well, that's what this research has been going into. You know, when I first started studying economics in college - roughly 100 years ago - we looked pretty simply at supply and demand. And the goal of the economy, the things we were trying to measure, was do people have enough of a supply of money to go out and fill their demands...

HEADLEE: Right.

GEEWAX: ...to get what they want? But then, during the Great Recession, especially during 2008 and -9, a lot of people said, whoa, let's actually look at what makes people happy. Are they - is this economy, are all the things we're measuring actually making people happy - like bigger homes, more square footage - or are they actually, kind of miserable? So there was this international commission set up. It was at the urging of the French government, blah, blah, blah. They all looked at happiness.

And basically, what they've come to the conclusion is that we should be looking more at what actually makes people happy. And just last week, the National Academy of Sciences, which is a group that advises our government, recommended that we start to collect more statistics on measuring happiness. And those - the questions would be things like, overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? And then you could kind of track happiness over a period of time. So there is this new research. And voilĂ , it is giving us answers.

HEADLEE: All right, well, we're going to get to these answers. I have to say. I get skeptical when I hear things like this, as a worker, because oftentimes happiness...

GEEWAX: Wow.

HEADLEE: ...Is supposed to make up for low wages. Right, they're going to pay you less, but you'll be really happy.

GEEWAX: Well, that's where there actually are dollar figures on when do you - when are you happy and when aren't you.

HEADLEE: Right.

GEEWAX: So what they are really discovering is that if you don't make enough money, if you're a low-wage worker and you really can't afford basic things like decent shelter...

HEADLEE: Right. Like we just talked about.

GEEWAX: ...Three meals a day, that kind of thing, right, exactly - that a lack of wages will make you unhappy.

HEADLEE: Of course.

GEEWAX: It's really hard to lack basics. But if you get to about $75,000 a year - seems to be the breakpoint in this country. If you get to, you know, two incomes in the household, and you're making about 75,000, then you're probably reasonably happy. For the most part, people at that level have enough money to be able to have shelter, to have three meals a day.

HEADLEE: Right.

GEEWAX: And then it becomes a question of beyond that, how do you do spend money?

HEADLEE: Disposable income.

GEEWAX: Right, the disposable income.

HEADLEE: All right, so obviously, this time of year, let's say the - as I mentioned earlier, this 72-inch flat screen TV. And I'm sure that many...

GEEWAX: Which I would love.

HEADLEE: ...Many people come home from Costco or whatever and they feel that flush of joy when they install this huge, beautiful TV. Why doesn't that give you lasting happiness?

GEEWAX: Well, they find that over time, as they try to measure people's happiness, is that you do get an initial rush. Maybe you've got the TV and you set it up and looks great, and that first couple of football games you're just thrilled the pieces. But if the consequence is that you spend more and more time alone in your basement just by yourself watching that television instead said of going to the sports bar where all your old college buddies are - or your friends - and going over to your cousin's house to watch it, you end up - in the long run, the relationships matter more than the object. And those are the things that when you talk to people in their old age and they look back on happiness, it's connections, its community, it's life experiences that matter.

HEADLEE: Right, so invite everyone over to watch with you.

GEEWAX: Right, so if you really like that television, go ahead and get it, maybe if you can afford it, but don't just sit there alone. I mean, the studies really suggest that if you share that game with your kids, if you share it with your siblings, that when you turn it into a party, into some sort of a life experience then it can add to your happiness long-term. But the object itself is not as important as connecting with people. So that's the kind of interesting research.

HEADLEE: And that actually was interesting as well in terms of, like, buying an expensive vacation.

GEEWAX: Right.

HEADLEE: I found it interesting that it matters why you bought the expensive cruise.

GEEWAX: Why? Well, there you go again. It's - there are some caveats with all of this buying happiness idea. Yes, life experiences do seem to generate more lasting happiness, but only if you're doing it for the right reasons. If you do it for the wrong reason, that is, just to impress your friends, then you don't end up very happy. So if the thing that really would make you happy is - I just want to catch up on my rest, bake some cookies, spend some time with family, but to impress my friends I feel like I must go on an expensive cruise, that only creates more stress.

It really doesn't make you happier. So make sure that your motivations are right. And then there's one other big caveat with all of this and that's that, you know, expectations can affect your happiness. So when you buy a couch, let's say - an object - and it turns out it's kind of lumpy and maybe the color isn't exactly right.

HEADLEE: Right, but you thought it was fabulous.

GEEWAX: You thought it was fabulous when it was in the store. You get it home and - oh, geeze. I bought kind of a dumb thing. You'll get over that. You can shrug it off because eventually you can get a different couch.

HEADLEE: Right.

GEEWAX: But when you put money into life experiences, and you have this really great expectation - you're going to Disney World with the kids and the grand children...

HEADLEE: And it's terrible.

GEEWAX: And it rains and everybody...

HEADLEE: That will scar you for life.

GEEWAX: ...Yells...

HEADLEE: Yeah, we can all say that.

GEEWAX: ...That can hurt, too.

HEADLEE: Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor with NPR. She says, basically, if you want to be happy, be a good person. That's kind of...

GEEWAX: Yeah. That's it.

HEADLEE: ...What that says, right? She joined us in our Washington D.C. studios. Thanks so much, Marilyn.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.

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