What Makes You Happiest In Life: Money, Possessions Or Experiences?

money on a world map

 It’s a question scientists, gurus, and the rest of us have pondered for centuries: what makes you happiest in life: experiences or money and possessions?

There are many different views.

Some people believe money makes us happy

Some people believe money makes us unhappy

Some people are all about experiences

And some people are all about possessions.

Who is right and who is wrong? Or is it an individual matter? Or is it about what you actually spend money on? Does ethical investing, for instance, make us happier than spending money on ourselves?

Initially they said that what makes you happiest in life is money.

Years ago, scientists believed that money and possessions were two of the most important things for happiness.

Money, they said, was more important for happiness than experiences are. After all, while some things might be worth more than money, cold hard cash is still important. Money creates comfort and stability, and if you have plenty of bank savings you’re going to be pretty okay in most regards.

Plus, when you’re rich you don’t need to worry about money all the time.

All true.

It was a truth I was living when I was 21.

Fresh from university I had a job dealing in shares.  I wasn’t making a ton of money (I wasn’t a stock market dealer or anything, but I was working for a share-holding company and dealing with a lot of rich people who, by the way, were usually unhappy—which seemed to confirm my belief that money makes us unhapy).

Back the I had just enough to be comfortable. But it was a job that I was not passionate about. 21 year old me craved a more purposeful, meaningful job. So I left. That was 2003.

That same year, psychologists Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University, New York, and Leaf Van Boven at the University of Colorado Boulder, published research revealing that experience is more important to happiness than money and possessions.  This started the experiential living movement [1].

This said that what makes you happiest in life is experience.


So suddenly we all believed money did not make us happy, experience did

James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever [AMAZON], says “[The idea that experience trumps possessions] has been informed by both small-scale experiments and nationally representative surveys. Eight studies by reputable scientists with the same conclusion? That’s enough for me to believe a thing.”

It was enough for me, too.

When I left my job in 2003, I did so fully believing that more life experience would lead to more happiness.

At my job, I was stuck in the office nine hours a day. Suddenly, I was travelling England as a professional actor, playing in theatres around the country. I was meeting amazing people, people who inspired me, people I will be forever grateful to have shared experiences with.

Money, however, was not easy to come by. I wasn’t exactly manifesting money. The average actor makes little. The idea of the starving artist is true for all but the most fortunate of actors.

Living without money is incredibly stressful.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about minimal living, but not knowing how I would pay for rent and for basic food was incredibly stressful.

My lack of money only got worse when I moved country to Canada (I knew money would be hard to find for an immigrant with no ties, but I fell in love thanks to a dating site, and thought what the hell, I’m going to move country).

In a new country with no ties, I had zero money and stress was intense. I actually suffered from an acute stress reaction at one point.

If money does not make us happy, not having money makes us feel even worse.

Having no money made me unhappy.

By this point, life had taught me that I needed both money and experiences if I were to be happy.  (Those are two things I learned, anyway. Take a look at this list of ways to stay mentally strong and happy for more on this).

I learned I need some money (not a lot, but enough to live off of), some possessions, and lots of experiences to be happy.

What does science say about that?

Today, new scientific research that was published on this very subject. And we may finally know for sure what makes you happiest in life.


Turns out that for happiness, we need money and experience in equal measure

Gabor Hajdu and Tomas Hajdu at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences studies 10,000 responses to surveys from families regarding how much they spent on possessions and how much they spent on experience, and how that spending affected their life satisfaction.

Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money [AMAZON], and Aaron Wiedman at the University of British Columbia have released a study called “Material Purchases And Monetary Happiness” [2]. They state that material possessions make us experience more “momentary happiness”, but that happiness does not last.

Despite theses findings, however, there remains the wisdom and evidence that too much materialism is bad for both us and the planet. And when all this materialism destroys the planet… well… everyone loses. Perhaps this is why some meditation movements, like Maum, are aimed at stopping materialism.

And then there’s the possibility that these government sponsored psychological studies were actually intended as ways to try and get us all spending more. After all, it would be hard to find public funding for a study into whether money makes us unhappy (no one would fund it).

Science. Always interesting. Not always helpful. And neither as honest nor as valuable as pure wisdom.

What can be safely assumed is that when we have money, possessions, and experience, we get the best of both worlds.

So how do we do that?



3 Ways To Make Your Money Make You Happy

1) Stop Wasting Money. Starting Buying Stuff That Actually Creates Life Experiences

Money isn’t as important as what we spend it on. And we choose to waste it or to put it into some meaningful or ethical investments.

Research shows that spending money compassionately makes us feel great.

If we’re honest, a lot of the money we spend is wasted. And most of us could spend more wisely.

Instead of buying stuff that doesn’t last and isn’t remembers (alcohol, for instance), let’s buy things that actually creates life experiences. It could be a meaningful vacation. It could be something as small as a meal out with family. It could be some new practical shoes so we can go on more hikes (something I love to do). Or it could be spending money on other people so you feel just groovy about yourself

Use money to buy items that create experiences for yourself and other people.


2) Make Money In A Job That Provides Life Experiences

Money matters. No question about it. The only people who can possibly say that money does not matter are people so rich that they don’t have to worry about it. You and I? We need money to survive.

Yes money matters.

But the way we get money (our job) can mean a lot more than just the money itself.

one way money makes us unhappy is when it is acquired in either immoral ways or ways that just don’t meld with us. After all, there is karma to deal with.

Anyone interested in a change of careers would do well to consider both a) how much money does it pay? b) what life experiences will I get out of it, c) is it something ethical with a purpose you can feel deep in your soul?

Making money stuck in an office is great and all (and something to be thankful for as there are people far worse off), but it’s not as good as making money going on geographical excursions as a marine biologist, now, is it?

What career would create the best life experiences while making you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile?  Could you make your current job more meaningful and get more life experience out of it?

Money makes us happy when it is gotten in ethical ways that have a purpose beyond your bank account and stock prices.


3) Buy Items That Actually Help You Enjoy The Moments

Money makes people unhappy when they feel obligated to spend it. For instance, shopaholics addicted to buying stuff.

A smart strategy is to buy items that actually offer psychological benefits.

In a paper for the Journal of Consumer Psychology, psychologists Darwin A. Guevarra and Ryan T. Howell [3] say that experiences are good because they “satisfy the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” Material possessions can do the same things. Spend your money on competence, autonomy, and relatedness.”

Some great options for doing precisely that? Online courses. Learning a new language. Exercise equipment. Etc.

We need money, material possessions, and life experiences in order to be truly happy.  And while there are other paths to happiness, the simple truth is that we have needs that must be met, and that without meeting those needs we almost certainly will not be happy.


Force To Choose: Poor And Unhappy Or Rich And Happy?

I hear the same lines over and over again. “Paul, why don’t you just jack it in and get a regular nine to five job?”

You’d be amazed how many people say that to me: my father (R.I.P dad, I will always love you), my mother, my brother, virtually all my friends…

To be fair they definitely do have a point. I struggle to get by. My lack of money makes me unhappy.  It’s a fight to put food in the fridge. And yes, life would be very much easier if I just got a regular nine to five, even a minimum wage nine to five job.

But I refuse. And at the grand old age of thirty-three (okay it’s really not that old, but it’s old enough to know yourself), I don’t think I’m every likely to change my mind. Not unless it gets to the point where I am quite literally starving. Oh wait, no, I’ve been there before and still kept going.

The reason for my stubbornness is really very simple. Life is too damned short. It’s too short to not do what you’re passionate about.


You are going to die and turn to ash and you will be nothing more than an echo in the wind. At least be an echo of love and passion. --Paul Harrison. Click To Tweet

My personal passion is writing. And for me, nothing makes me happier than money made from writing.

I write on my blogs, I write for magazines, I write books, I write poetry… I write because I believe that words hold great power. I believe words can change the world. And so I write. I write because when my kids decide what words to put on my tombstone, I want them to write something that matters. You know, something along the lines of, “He sacrificed himself for others.” Something like that.

We all have a passion, I’m certain of that. You almost certainly know precisely what your passion is.

What is it?

To travel the world on a spiritual quest?

To run your own business?

To become a personal trainer?

To be a famous movie star?

Whatever it is, you should do it, because you’re capable of doing it. Yes, you might fail, but your journey to failure will be spectacular.

Do what you love. Yes you might fail. But your journey to failure will be spectacular. Click To Tweet

I truly believe that we all have the power to do amazing things, and it’s our responsibility to try to do those amazing things no matter what sacrifices we have to make.

I’m definitely not alone in that belief, either. In fact, I suspect that every other INFP feels the same way I do.

An INFP, by the way, is one of the Briggs Myers archetypes. The letters stand for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving. Apparently as a male INFP I am in one of the rarest types of people, which I suppose accounts for why I feel so weird compared to everyone else (I feel different because, well, I am different. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with that).

I recommend you take the Briggs Myers test yourself and discover your archetype. You might find it’s quite eye opening. The results of my test say that I’m a visionary artist who creates stories non-stop and even brings stuffed animals to life by giving them personalities and stories—all of which is shockingly true.

But I digress.


So, unhappy with money, or happy with no money?

Personally, I would rather die poor trying to achieve something amazing, than be rich and doing a job I hate.

The simple reason why it’s better to struggle for your passion than live in comfort for a job you hate, is this. You’re going to die. Sorry. Bumma, I know. But you are going to die. Your life on Earth is really fairly short. But what might not be short is your influence. Shakespeare lived to be just 52. But his influence—ah, his influence—that lasted for four hundred years and counting.

The only reason Shakespeare was able to influence people for more than four hundred years is that he lived for his passion.

I wonder what Shakespeare would say if you asked him “Is it better to be poor and happy or rich and unhappy.” Something very philosophical and poetic, no doubt.

No doubt there were times when Shakespeare struggled. Being a writer has never and will never be easy. It’s the same for all arts (unless you’re born into riches and fame like Beyonce and Daniel Day Lewis). Mozart lived an extremely difficult life. So did Van Gogh.  But they changed the world of music and art more than anyone else who ever lived (except perhaps for Beethoven and Haydn, and Michelangelo and Da Vinci, respectively).

Divine people like Van Gogh, Mozart, and Shakespeare struggled for their passion. The result is that they’ve now been immortalised and that their art will remain priceless and unforgettable for thousands of years.

But if all of this sounds a bit glum and serious, it really needn’t. Living for your passion is also a lot more rewarding than working a regular 9-5.

Remember, the equation is this:

Happiness = Money X Experience

If you do what you love you will always have tons of experience, even if you make l little money. On the other hand, you could still be poor working your butt off in a 9 to 5.

Working for your passion is more of a challenge, but it’s a challenge you feel much more motivated to do.

  • You wake up every morning knowing your aim and knowing why it matters.
  • You value yourself because you believe that what you’re doing truly matters.
  • And everything you do is connected to that deep fire in the belly, that core of boiling coals that is your passion.



I may end up suffering for my stubbornness. ‘

If you ask me right now “Is it better to be poor and happy or rich and unhappy” I will say the former. Will I regret it? I could be a fool and say “no way”. The true answer is: Maybe. But hell, if I dedicated myself to money I could regret that too right?

At times I may wish I’d chosen an easier path. But I suspect that when it’s all said and done, I’ll look back on my life with pride and in a loud and clear Sanatra-style voice, I sing “I did it my way”.


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About Paul Martin Harrison 494 Articles
Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher, author and journalist based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential. Don’t miss Paul’s inspirational and enlightening book Journey To The Buddha Within You.

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