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The spending that makes us happy

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” — Mark Twain

If you are in debt and are working your way to get out of that situation, this conversation will resonate more for you if you got into debt because of consumer spending. If it was medical bills, divorce or some other life development that was foisted on you, this might not mean as much. Even so, consider the message here. Your happiness depends on it.

Think about a time you went to dinner with someone and you both ordered dessert. Imagine that you ordered different desserts, and once those treats arrived yours was clearly the tastier option. You have a choice here. Eat your dessert all by yourself, enjoying the fruits of your good decision. Or, offer to share part of your treat with your dinner companion. Which one will make you happier?

If you are like people who participated in a study on money and happiness by Harvard Professor Michael Norton, sharing made you happier. So when you get a windfall, or you have managed to eliminate all your debts, what kind of spending do you think will make you happier?

Some of us get into financial trouble because of our consumer spending on things we buy for ourselves. It could be the flat-screen TV, the nicer car, or additional clothing for our wardrobe. Anytime we buy we inherently believe that purchase will make our lives better in some way, and therefore we will be happier.

But Norton found out that wasn’t true. His researchers gave money to people, or asked people about experiences they had with money, the vast majority felt more joy by sharing their money or giving it away completely. That can be a challenging idea when we stand in front of a jacket or an electronic gadget we are coveting, but so often the stuff we buy for ourselves leaves either feeling empty, or guilty about the expense.

So instead, as you refine your skills at budgeting and planning your finances, take some of what you spend on yourself and consider how you might spend instead on others. Set money aside to give away. It can be something as simple as buying a coffee for a coworker. Or, if you get a sudden windfall, help someone else get out of debt. If you really want to experience the joy of giving, find ways to give anonymously. You can witness the joy of someone else’s receiving without needing to be acknowledged for your gift.

The other way you can give is to accept the gifts from others. Allow others to feel the joy you get from spending on someone else.

Again, one of the main reasons we decide to get out of debt is to unshackle ourselves from the burden that debt brings us. We do this to become happier. By giving, you’ll know that feeling even more.

Published Mar 14, 2014.