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?

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


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

Money, they said, was more important for happiness than experiences are. After all, while some things (these 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. 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. 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.

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

James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever, 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’ll 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.

Having no money made me very 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 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.

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

Despite theses findings, however, there remans 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.

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.

Science. Always interesting. Not always helpful. And certainly not as valuable as pure wisdom.

Either way, 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 Great Strategies For The Happiest Life

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.

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).

Use money to buy items that create experiences, and you’ve got the best of both worlds.


2) Make Money In A Job That Provides Life Experiences

Money matters. No question about it. But the way we get money (our job) can mean a lot more than just the money itself.

Anyone interested in a change of careers would do well to consider both a) how much money does it pay? And b) what life experiences will I get out of it.

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? Or, for those wanting to keep their current job, what ways could you use your job to create more life experiences? For inspiration, take a look at the story of Brennon Jones, the heroic guy who turned his haircutting career into a way to help homeless people.


3) Buy Items That Actually Help You Enjoy The Moments

Another good 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 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, (such as practicing meditation, which can create 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.

So what makes you happiest in life? Leave a comment.


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