NYT\But Will It Make You Happy?
- =v= She and her husband got rid of their cars, living in Davis,
California (which has long had carfree housing developments),
and her mother called her crazy.
But Will It Make You Happy?
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
New York Times | 07-August-2010
SHE had so much.
A two-bedroom apartment. Two cars. Enough wedding china to serve
two dozen people.
Yet Tammy Strobel wasn't happy. Working as a project manager
with an investment management firm in Davis, Calif., and making
about $40,000 a year, she was, as she put it, caught in the
So one day she stepped off.
Inspired by books and blog entries about living simply,
Ms. Strobel and her husband, Logan Smith, both 31, began
donating some of their belongings to charity. As the months
passed, out went stacks of sweaters, shoes, books, pots and
pans, even the television after a trial separation during which
it was relegated to a closet. Eventually, they got rid of their
cars, too. Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers
to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down
her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number.
Her mother called her crazy.
Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began
downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare,
400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith
is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily
works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns
four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith
in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel's income of about
$24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but
have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.
Ms. Strobel's mother is impressed. Now the couple have money to
travel and to contribute to the education funds of nieces and
nephews. And because their debt is paid off, Ms. Strobel works
fewer hours, giving her time to be outdoors, and to volunteer,
which she does about four hours a week for a nonprofit outreach
program called Living Yoga.
"The idea that you need to go bigger to be happy is false," she
says. "I really believe that the acquisition of material goods
doesn't bring about happiness."
While Ms. Strobel and her husband overhauled their spending
habits before the recession, legions of other consumers have
since had to reconsider their own lifestyles, bringing a major
shift in the nation's consumption patterns.
"We're moving from a conspicuous consumption -- which is 'buy
without regard' -- to a calculated consumption," says Marshal
Cohen, an analyst at the NPD Group, the retailing research and
Amid weak job and housing markets, consumers are saving more
and spending less than they have in decades, and industry
professionals expect that trend to continue. Consumers saved 6.4
percent of their after-tax income in June, according to a new
government report. Before the recession, the rate was 1 to 2
percent for many years. In June, consumer spending and personal
incomes were essentially flat compared with May, suggesting that
the American economy, as dependent as it is on shoppers opening
their wallets and purses, isn't likely to rebound anytime soon.
On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted
in response to the economic crisis ultimately could -- as a raft
of new research suggests -- make them happier. New studies of
consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are
happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material
objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they
buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.
If consumers end up sticking with their newfound spending
habits, some tactics that retailers and marketers began
deploying during the recession could become lasting business
strategies. Among those strategies are proffering merchandise
that makes being at home more entertaining and trying to make
consumers feel special by giving them access to exclusive
events and more personal customer service.
While the current round of stinginess may simply be a response
to the economic downturn, some analysts say consumers may also
be permanently adjusting their spending based on what they've
discovered about what truly makes them happy or fulfilled.
"This actually is a topic that hasn't been researched very much
until recently," says Elizabeth W. Dunn, an associate professor
in the psychology department at the University of British
Columbia, who is at the forefront of research on consumption and
happiness. "There's massive literature on income and happiness.
It's amazing how little there is on how to spend your money."
CONSPICUOUS consumption has been an object of fascination
going back at least as far as 1899, when the economist
Thorstein Veblen published "The Theory of the Leisure Class,"
a book that analyzed, in part, how people spent their money
in order to demonstrate their social status.
And it's been a truism for eons that extra cash always makes
life a little easier. Studies over the last few decades have
shown that money, up to a certain point, makes people happier
because it lets them meet basic needs. The latest round of
research is, for lack of a better term, all about emotional
efficiency: how to reap the most happiness for your dollar.
So just where does happiness reside for consumers? Scholars and
researchers haven't determined whether Armani will put a bigger
smile on your face than Dolce & Gabbana. But they have found
that our types of purchases, their size and frequency, and even
the timing of the spending all affect long-term happiness.
One major finding is that spending money for an experience --
concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel
room in Monaco -- produces longer-lasting satisfaction than
spending money on plain old stuff.
"'It's better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch' is
basically the idea," says Professor Dunn, summing up research
by two fellow psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich.
Her own take on the subject is in a paper she wrote with
colleagues at Harvard and the University of Virginia: "If Money
Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending It
Right." (The Journal of Consumer Psychology plans to publish
it in a coming issue.)
Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs,
population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin
in Madison, recently published research examining nine major
categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category
to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations,
entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing
Using data from a study by the National Institute on Aging,
Professor DeLeire compared the happiness derived from different
levels of spending to the happiness people get from being
married. (Studies have shown that marriage increases happiness.)
"A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly
equivalent to the happiness boost one gets from marriage," he
said, adding that spending on leisure activities appeared to
make people less lonely and increased their interactions with
According to retailers and analysts, consumers have gravitated
more toward experiences than possessions over the last couple
of years, opting to use their extra cash for nights at home
with family, watching movies and playing games -- or for
"staycations" in the backyard. Many retailing professionals
think this is not a fad, but rather "the new normal."
"I think many of these changes are permanent changes," says
Jennifer Black, president of the retailing research company
Jennifer Black & Associates and a member of the Governor's
Council of Economic Advisors in Oregon. "I think people are
realizing they don't need what they had. They're more interested
in creating memories."
She largely attributes this to baby boomers' continuing concerns
about the job market and their ability to send their children to
college. While they will still spend, they will spend less, she
said, having reset their priorities.
While it is unlikely that most consumers will downsize as much
as Ms. Strobel did, many have been, well, happily surprised by
the pleasures of living a little more simply. The Boston
Consulting Group said in a June report that recession anxiety
had prompted a "back-to-basics movement," with things like home
and family increasing in importance over the last two years,
while things like luxury and status have declined.
"There's been an emotional rebirth connected to acquiring things
that's really come out of this recession," says Wendy Liebmann,
chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing consulting
firm that works with manufacturers and retailers. "We hear
people talking about the desire not to lose that -- that
connection, the moment, the family, the experience."
Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material
goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens
social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. (Academics
are already in broad agreement that there is a strong
correlation between the quality of people's relationships and
their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social
bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.)
And the creation of complex, sophisticated relationships is a
rare thing in the world. As Professor Dunn and her colleagues
Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson point out in their
forthcoming paper, only termites, naked mole rats and certain
insects like ants and bees construct social networks as complex
as those of human beings. In that elite little club, humans are
the only ones who shop.
AT the height of the recession in 2008, Wal-Mart Stores realized
that consumers were "cocooning" -- vacationing in their yards,
eating more dinners at home, organizing family game nights. So
it responded by grouping items in its stores that would turn any
den into an at-home movie theater or transform a backyard into
a slice of the Catskills. Wal-Mart wasn't just selling barbecues
and board games. It was selling experiences.
"We spend a lot of time listening to our customers," says Amy
Lester, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, "and know that they have a
set amount to spend and need to juggle to meet that amount."
One reason that paying for experiences gives us longer-lasting
happiness is that we can reminisce about them, researchers
say. That's true for even the most middling of experiences.
That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines,
broke your camera and argued with your spouse will typically be
airbrushed with "rosy recollection," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a
psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
Professor Lyubomirsky has a grant from the National Institute
of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of
permanently increasing happiness. "Trips aren't all perfect,"
she notes, "but we remember them as perfect."
Another reason that scholars contend that experiences provide
a bigger pop than things is that they can't be absorbed in one
gulp -- it takes more time to adapt to them and engage with
them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on
that shiny flat-screen TV.
"We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it," says Professor
Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call "hedonic
adaptation," a phenomenon in which people quickly become used
to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable
level of happiness.
Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed
toward the emotional norm.
"We stop getting pleasure from it," she says.
And then, of course, we buy new things.
When Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of
Illinois and a former president of the International Positive
Psychology Association -- which promotes the study of what lets
people lead fulfilling lives -- was house-hunting with his wife,
they saw several homes with features they liked.
But unlike couples who choose a house because of its open
floor plan, fancy kitchens, great light, or spacious bedrooms,
Professor Diener arrived at his decision after considering
"One home was close to hiking trails, making going hiking very
easy," he said in an e-mail. "Thinking about the research, I
argued that the hiking trails could be a factor contributing to
our happiness, and we should worry less about things like how
pretty the kitchen floor is or whether the sinks are fancy. We
bought the home near the hiking trail and it has been great, and
we haven't tired of this feature because we take a walk four or
five days a week."
Scholars have discovered that one way consumers combat hedonic
adaptation is to buy many small pleasures instead of one big
one. Instead of a new Jaguar, Professor Lyubomirsky advises, buy
a massage once a week, have lots of fresh flowers delivered and
make phone calls to friends in Europe. Instead of a two-week
long vacation, take a few three-day weekends.
"We do adapt to the little things," she says, "but because
there's so many, it will take longer."
BEFORE credit cards and cellphones enabled consumers to have
almost anything they wanted at any time, the experience of
shopping was richer, says Ms. Liebmann of WSL Strategic
Retail. "You saved for it, you anticipated it," she says.
In other words, waiting for something and working hard to get
it made it feel more valuable and more stimulating.
In fact, scholars have found that anticipation increases
happiness. Considering buying an iPad? You might want to think
about it as long as possible before taking one home. Likewise
about a Caribbean escape: you'll get more pleasure if you book
a flight in advance than if you book it at the last minute.
Once upon a time, with roots that go back to medieval
marketplaces featuring stalls that functioned as stores,
shopping offered a way to connect socially, as Ms. Liebmann
and others have pointed out. But over the last decade, retailing
came to be about one thing: unbridled acquisition, epitomized by
big-box stores where the mantra was "stack 'em high and let 'em
fly" and online transactions that required no social interaction
at all -- you didn't even have to leave your home.
The recession, however, may force retailers to become
reacquainted with shopping's historical roots.
"I think there's a real opportunity in retail to be able to
romance the experience again," says Ms. Liebmann. "Retailers are
going to have to work very hard to create that emotional feeling
again. And it can't just be 'Here's another thing to buy.' It
has to have a real sense of experience to it."
Industry professionals say they have difficulty identifying
any retailer that is managing to do this well today, with one
notable exception: Apple, which offers an interactive retail
experience, including classes.
Marie Driscoll, head of the retailing group at Standard & Poor's,
says chains have to adapt to new consumer preferences by offering
better service, special events and access to designers. Analysts
at the Boston Consulting Group advise that companies offer more
affordable indulgences, like video games that provide an at-home
workout for far less than the cost of a gym membership.
Mr. Cohen of the NPD Group says some companies are doing this.
Best Buy is promoting its Geek Squad, promising shoppers before
they buy that complicated electronic thingamajig that its
employees will hold their hands through the installation process
"Nowadays with the economic climate, customers definitely
are going for a quality experience," says Nick DeVita, a home
entertainment adviser with the Geek Squad. "If they're going
to spend their money, they want to make sure it's for the right
thing, the right service."
With competition for consumer dollars fiercer than it's been in
decades, retailers have had to make the shopping experience more
compelling. Mr. Cohen says automakers are offering 30-day test
drives, while some clothing stores are promising free personal
shoppers. Malls are providing day care while parents shop. Even
on the Web, retailers are connecting on customers on Facebook,
Twitter and Foursquare, hoping to win their loyalty by offering
discounts and invitations to special events.
FOR the last four years, Roko Belic, a Los Angeles filmmaker,
has been traveling the world making a documentary called
"Happy." Since beginning work on the film, he has moved to a
beach in Malibu from his house in the San Francisco suburbs.
San Francisco was nice, but he couldn't surf there.
"I moved to a trailer park," says Mr. Belic, "which is the
first real community that I've lived in in my life." Now he
surfs three or four times a week. "It definitely has made me
happier," he says. "The things we are trained to think make
us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and
buying the latest fashions, don't make us happy."
Mr. Belic says his documentary shows that "the one single trait
that's common among every single person who is happy is strong
Buying luxury goods, conversely, tends to be an endless cycle
of one-upmanship, in which the neighbors have a fancy new car
and -- bingo! -- now you want one, too, scholars say. A study
published in June in Psychological Science by Ms. Dunn and
others found that wealth interfered with people's ability
to savor positive emotions and experiences, because having
an embarrassment of riches reduced the ability to reap
enjoyment from life's smaller everyday pleasures, like eating
a chocolate bar.
Alternatively, spending money on an event, like camping or a
wine tasting with friends, leaves people less likely to compare
their experiences with those of others -- and, therefore,
Of course, some fashion lovers beg to differ. For many people,
clothes will never be more than utilitarian. But for a certain
segment of the population, clothes are an art form, a means
of self-expression, a way for families to pass down memories
through generations. For them, studies concluding that people
eventually stop deriving pleasure from material things don't
"No way," says Hayley Corwick, who writes the popular fashion
blog Madison Avenue Spy. "I could pull out things from my
closet that I bought when I was 17 that I still love."
She rejects the idea that happiness has to be an either-or
proposition. Some days, you want a trip, she says; other days,
you want a Tom Ford handbag.
MS. STROBEL -- our heroine who moved into the 400-square foot
apartment -- is now an advocate of simple living, writing in
her spare time about her own life choices at Rowdykittens.com.
"My lifestyle now would not be possible if I still had a huge
two-bedroom apartment filled to the gills with stuff, two cars,
and 30 grand in debt," she says.
"Give away some of your stuff," she advises. "See how it feels."