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NYT\But Will It Make You Happy?

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  • Jym Dyer
    =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.
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2010
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      =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?
      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
      "work-spend treadmill."

      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
      consulting firm.

      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
      hedonic-adaptation research.

      "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
      and beyond.

      "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
      ring true.

      "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."
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