Too Much Stuff

Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less

Are all those holiday gifts still giving you a thrill? If not, you may be experiencing what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. By Barry Schwartz

01.14.12 4:50 PM ET

How much stuff is enough stuff? At what point should we worry a bit less about getting and spending and devote more time and energy to other things? As government austerity measures, shrinking incomes, and postholiday bills make us feel the squeeze on our wallets, it’s an especially good time to ask questions like these. The holidays should be putting us in mind to savor our close relations with friends and family and to ask ourselves what we can do to ease the burdens of others. Instead they seem mostly to add stress. Gift buying adds to our to-do lists even though our plates are already overfull of other responsibilities and our bank accounts, in these hard times, are perilously close to empty.  The holidays should be a time of joy, but they seem, increasingly, to be a time of misery.

It may seem as though “how much is enough” is a very individual question. But it turns out that psychology has a good deal to offer us in the way of an answer. Psychology has developed a pretty rich understanding of what it is that produces happiness—what is sometimes called life satisfaction or subjective well being. And for the most part, what produces happiness isn’t stuff. People thrive when they have a network of close relations to others and when they have meaningful work that they find engaging. Stuff just doesn’t do it. And one major reason stuff doesn’t do it is a pervasive phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation is just a fancy label for what we already know: we get used to things. The new car gets us all excited—for a while. But before long, it’s just our ride. The new tablet or smartphone is so enticing that we can’t keep our hands off it. But before long, it’s just another way for people we don’t want to hear from to lay responsibilities on us. There’s no denying that we get tremendous pleasure from the things we have. But the pleasure is disappointingly short-lived. And although this adaptation happens to us again and again, we never seem to learn to anticipate it. The result is that even when we get exactly what we want, we often end up disappointed.

The reality of the things we have doesn’t live up to our expectations. Some have suggested that adaptation creates what might be called a hedonic treadmill. We run faster and faster, but don’t seem to get anywhere. 

Why don’t we learn from past disappointments? One possibility has been suggested by economist Robert Frank. In several books, Frank has observed that often when we seek things, pleasure is beside the point. Sometimes, we seek things just to have a little bit more than our neighbors. We have a concern for status—for relative position. So even if the thrill of driving our Mercedes doesn’t last, the thrill of comparing it to our neighbor’s Civic may. It may not make us feel very good about ourselves to acknowledge that we get pleasure from status, but we do. And we may have a hard time suppressing status concern without some outside help. The help that Frank suggests is a tax on consumption (basically on earnings minus savings). If the tax is high enough, it may make status concern just expensive enough for us to suppress it.

And what would we do if we stopped acquiring stuff? Here, too, research in psychology has something valuable to offer. It seems that most of us get more pleasure out of doing than out of having. Though the line between “doing” and “having” is not always a bright one (for example, is the $5,000 ski trip “having” or “doing”?) Leaf Van Boven, Tom Gilovich, and their collaborators have shown that doing satisfies us more than having does. In reflecting on the past or contemplating the future, people are happier when they have experiences on their minds than when they have things on their minds. And the higher a person’s income is, the bigger the disparity between the joys of doing and the joys of having. Moreover, we don’t adapt to doing to the same degree that we adapt to having. The museum trip, the hike, the bike ride in the hills, the informal dinner with friends keep satisfying long after the Mercedes has stopped providing a thrill. And a great thing about at least some “doing” is that it doesn’t cost much money. Furthermore, people seem to get an extra shot of well-being juice when they do things that serve others rather than themselves. The pleasures associated with our own acts of consumption tend to be short-lived. The pleasures derived from doing something for others linger.

There are several possible reasons why doing does more for us than having. First, though doing is just an episode in life, we continue to “consume” the things we do by remembering them, and sharing our memories with others. Second, doing is almost always social, and I’ve already indicated how important social relations are to well being. Doing things together with others may actually strengthen social ties, and because our social relations are much less predictable than our relations with stuff (the Mercedes doesn’t change from day to day, or behave weirdly as we drive to work), we are less likely to adapt to our activities. In one study, strangers were brought together to discuss either things they had or things they did. Discussion of activities led to a more positive impression of ones discussion partner and greater enjoyment of the conversation itself than discussion of things. Third, doing seems to constitute a more meaningful part of our personal identity than having does. Now, we all know people who “are what they own.” But there is reliable research indicating that people who are like that—people who have what we might call materialist values—are less satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. This is true even of materialists who are financially successful. And by the way, as people age, doing seems increasingly to dominate having as a goal. This may be a key part of the “wisdom of aging,” and may help explain why, despite persistent aches and pains in recalcitrant body parts, older people are happier than younger ones.

The lesson in all this research is that prioritizing what we do over what we have will lead to greater satisfaction with our lives. The implications of this lesson are very broad indeed. For example, when it comes to holiday gifts, people should think seriously about giving something of themselves instead of buying gifts. Give the people you love the gift of time, doing something together you will both cherish. (Your teenage children may not consider this much of a gift, but your mother will.) Rake your neighbor’s leaves instead of giving him a case of beer. Take your kids to the aquarium instead of shopping for the latest videogame. For Valentine’s Day, cook your partner a meal instead of buying a camera or a heart-shaped box of chocolates. Not only will both donor and recipient be more satisfied, but the time you spend doing things together will be time you don’t spend fighting crowds in the mall. And the gift you give will be remembered.

More important, a focus on what you do rather than what you have may change the way in which you evaluate job opportunities. Though most of us probably say that meaningful, engaging work is more important to us than highly compensated work, it’s not clear that we actually choose on that basis. We should. And our employers should bear this in mind as well. If they make the tasks we face every day challenging, meaningful, and engaging, we’ll be much more satisfied doing them. And as Barbara Fredrickson has shown, happy people do better work than unhappy ones. Thus, whatever minor inefficiencies might be introduced by giving employees some discretion and control over their work will probably be more than compensated for by work that is high quality, done by people who are highly motivated. And for the tiny handful of workers who still have some leverage in negotiating with employers, it should be born in mind that working conditions may be much more important to their satisfaction with their jobs than a bump in salary and benefits.

A final point. I suspect that there is little in what I’ve written that people don’t already know. This suggests either that people don’t need to be told, or that telling people is a waste of time because they just can’t help themselves when it comes to acquiring more stuff. It does seem to me, however, that the economic crisis of recent years may provide us with a unique opportunity to encourage people to recalibrate their aims and aspirations. For the foreseeable future, acquiring the means for buying things is going to be much more effortful than it was just a few short years ago. As Rahm Emanuel said when the financial crisis began, “we should never let a crisis go to waste.” Crises are opportunities for people, as well as governments, to do big things. And the big things that we as individuals can do center on reminding ourselves of what is really important and satisfying in our lives, and aiming to achieve those things instead of a Mercedes in our driveways.