Sometimes Money Can Buy Happiness – And Sometimes Not

Sometimes Money Can Buy Happiness – And Sometimes Not

Posted July 10, 2007 | 02:25 PM (EST)

Gretchen Rubin

One of my revelations from the Happiness Project is that most people don’t spend enough time thinking about how money could buy them some happiness.

If you spend money thoughtfully, in the right way, it can do a lot to boost your happiness.

However, today I want to explore a familiar situation in which money does NOT buy you happiness. I’m trying to think of a snappy name for it, but because I haven’t come up with one yet, let’s call it the expensive-gym-membership effect.

The expensive-gym-membership effect is when you pay money for something in order to force yourself to make time for a priority.

Because you want to make yourself go to the gym, you pay a lot for a membership, with the thought, “Gosh, this costs so much, I’ll feel like I have to go to the gym!” Guess what. You won’t. The expensive-gym-membership effect is how gyms stay in business. They can’t afford to have a treadmill for every member, but they know a lot of paying members will never show up.

If you find yourself paying for something but not using it, ask yourself, “Why?” You may be buying something to try to nudge yourself toward a goal to which you’re not wholly committed.

For example, the Big Man kept bringing home books about the Middle East, then not reading them. “You know,” I told him, “I don’t think you’re actually interested in reading about the Middle East. Maybe you think you ought to be interested, but you’re not.”

But the expensive-gym-membership effect doesn’t apply only to situations where you’re trying to get yourself to do something that you don’t really want to do. Sometimes you’re trying to encourage yourself to make time for something fun.

Maybe you buy a new tennis racket, because you want to play more tennis. You buy a fancy camera, because you want to start taking more photos. You buy lovely bath oils, because you want to start taking a nightly relaxing bath. I myself went to three stores to hunt down Mod Podge, because I wanted to experiment with decoupage.

I bought that Mod Podge months ago, and I’ve never used it. Merely spending money on something doesn’t do much to push you along. You have to decide to make an activity a priority. Probably the reason you’re not taking long baths isn’t because you don’t have the right bath oil, but because you have three kids and no time. You buy the bath oil as an expression of your desire to change something in your life – but that purchase won’t do it.

I try never to buy something unless I foresee using it within a week. If I’m buying a pair of pants, would I wear them within a week? If I’m buying a photo album, would I be putting photos in it in a week? If I’d asked myself that about Mod Podge, I would have had to answer “no.” I liked the idea of doing decoupage, but in truth, I couldn’t foresee making time to do it.

This can be a tricky line, because sometimes buying things is part of laying the groundwork necessary for a new activity. You might feel more comfortable going to a yoga class for the first time if you were wearing the appropriate kind of clothes – and therefore, you’d be more likely actually to go.

I think the mistake comes when people try to make the purchase as a way of giving themselves the momentum they need – but purchases rarely do that. If you want to play more tennis, concentrate on finding the time on your calendar, not on finding the right racquet at the sporting goods store.

If you’d like to read more from Gretchen’s daily blog, check out The Happiness Project.