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We all know that happiness feels great. What may be surprising is how comprehensively it helps us thrive. “We find that [happiness] contributes to academic and career success. People live longer; they have healthier coping styles over their lifetime. People who are happier get promoted more often. People who are happier are healthier. Happiness is now a cause of success,” says Louisa Jewell, Founder and President of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. “It’s about feeling good throughout the day, engaging in interesting activities, having good relationships, having purpose and meaning in your life, feeling confident about yourself.”

So how do we get happy?

Happiness is a lot easier to tap into than you might think. The key: Prioritize experiences, not stuff. Research shows that spending time and money on experiences (instead of on material goods) makes us feel happier and more satisfied, according to a 2015 review of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

It may seem counterintuitive, but our experiences stick with us far longer than the quick happiness high we get from buying a new pair of shoes or the newest gadget. Memories and feelings associated with our experiences stay with us—especially if we remember and tell stories about them.“You may want that car or whatever it is. When you finally get it, you see an increase in your happiness, but after a few months, you adapt to the fact you have it. It [isn’t] as novel anymore,” says Jewell.

We asked Canadian students: Which would you rather receive as a gift?

An experience

(e.g., concert tickets)

A possession

(e.g., clothes; gadgets)

Source: Student Health 101 survey, March 2019

How to reach peak happiness

happy guy against yellow wall

1. Choose experiences that contribute to who you are and that build your identity in a positive way

Try something new, take a class, or develop a skill. “Think about the experience of watching TV and having an identity of ‘I’m a TV watcher.’ How gratifying is that? Not very. But if you’re out in the wilderness camping with friends and have the identity of ‘I’m adventurous,’ that’s likely to be very gratifying,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, Happiness Researcher and Professor of Psychology at Cornell University.

2. Look for opportunities and situations that connect you with others

Start a hiking group that meets on weekends or join a tennis league. If you’re a big reader, try a book club to add a social element.

“I recently went to a music festival I think it made me happy because of the lively mood everyone was in and the varieties of music.” —Josh S., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick3. Nurture your memories

Record your thoughts, insights, memories, and stories in a journal you can read and reread. Value pictures and gifts that elicit fond memories. Print some of your photos and keep them visible so you recall those good times.

4. Value free and low-cost experiences

“A lot of experiences that provide a lot of happiness aren’t very expensive,” says Dr. Gilovich.

  • Look within and beyond your college or university environment: Find parks, trails, beaches, pools, and so on. “Take advantage of these settings for a gratifying break from the grind that school can be,” says Dr. Gilovich.
  • Read: Reading about an experience looks much the same on brain scans as actually having that experience, according to a 2011 study in the Annual Review of Psychology. Reading builds our empathy (enhancing our relationships) and emotional health, and puts us into a relaxed, meditative state, studies show.

We asked Canadian students to focus on just one experience or possession that makes them happy. Then we asked: Which of the following apply?

It gives me a sense of accomplishment 53%
It strengthens or represents my connection to others 49%
It ties into my identity in a meaningful way 44%
It gives me a sense of purpose 42%
It rewards my senses (art, nature, etc.) 42%
It can be an entertaining story to tell others 36%
It changes how I spend my time, for the better 29%
It helps me cope with my problems 27%
It helps me become a better person 24%
It facilitates a reasonable standard of living for me 9%

5. Buy things that help facilitate fulfilling experiences

Buying things isn’t all bad, especially when those things help you have experiences that make you happy. For example, you can buy a mountain bike or guitar to give you access to certain experiences. As long as you actually ride the bike or play the guitar, these purchases will likely do more for your happiness than a purely material purchase would, according to studies by Dr. Gilovich and others.

“Hiking with my friends was a chance to go into nature and get some exercise. We were pleasantly tired and able to hang out and chat for a few hours away from the city. Afterwards, we went out for drinks, which was also bonding.”
—Sarah S., third-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

“My backyard froze very flat in a freeze-thaw cycle 3 weeks ago. My best friends and neighbour’s children are figure skaters. Their backyard was marred with foot and paw prints. I now have a (small) oval ‘rink’ in my backyard. I LOVE watching them enjoying it. I have spruced it up a bit by doing small floods when required. It brings me joy to see them so happy. <3”
—Heather M., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia

“Singing this December with a full orchestra – it made me feel brave and capable of achieving anything if I put my mind to it.”
—Kathy H., fourth-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

“My boyfriend took me to a ballet. I grew up not even seeing movies in cinemas or going to restaurants, so it was amazing experiencing going out and being fancy.”
—Jessica L., second-year graduate, McGill University, Quebec

“Last year, I went to Ethiopia. It made me happier because I got to see my family who I have missed, and it helped give me a purpose in life.”
—Adan A., second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“I recently went to a music festival. I think it made me happy because of the lively mood everyone was in and the varieties of music.”
—Josh S., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

“Recently, I cleaned my room with one of my floormates, hung photos, and reorganized everything, and I felt significantly happier after. I think this was due to the fact that the space smelled better, there was no clutter, and seeing photos of awesome memories on my wall made me feel better. Cleaning and redecorating also helps my anxiety, so that was a perk, plus it was fun to clean with a friend, and jam out to music and have fun.”
—Kyla X., first-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

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Article sources

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Cornell University.

Louisa Jewell, MAPP, Founder and President of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.

Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 146–159. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20053039

Cohn, M. A., Frederickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., et al. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368.

Dovey, C. (2015, June 9.) Can reading make you happier? New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier

Gilovich, T., & Kumar, A. (2015). We’ll always have Paris: The hedonic payoff from experiential and material investments. In James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna (Eds.). Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 51 (147–187). Burlington, Vermont: Academic Press.

Gilovich, T., Kumar, A., Jampol, L. (2015). A wonderful life: Experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(1), 152–165. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2014.08.004

Howell, R. T., & Hill, G. (2009). The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 511–522.

Huffman, M. (2011, April 8). How to avoid buyer’s remorse. Consumer Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2011/04/how-to-avoid-buyer-s-remorse.html

Kumar, A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Talking about what you did and what you have: Differential story utility from experiential and material purchases. In Simona Botti and Aparna Labroo (Eds.), Advances in consumer research volume 41. Duluth, Minnesota: Association for Consumer Research. Retrieved from http://acrwebsite.org/volumes/1014578/volumes/v41/NA-41

Lyubomirsky, S. L., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 14, 803–855.

Merzer, M. (2014, November 23). Survey: Three in four Americans make impulse purchases. CreditCards.com. Retrieved from http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/impulse-purchase-survey.php

Saxbe, D. E., & Repetti, R. (2010). No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 71–81. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19934011

Student Health 101 survey, March 2019.

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193–1202.