Duh, You Don't Need to Buy All That Stuff, You Just Need to Know You COULD

It's weird: When I'm broke and notice all the things I could have, I tend to long more for them. But when I'm flush with cash, I become inordinately picky, suddenly unwilling to part with my money unless it's for something I totally love. What the eff? Because now that I know I can have it, I don't need it as much.

Happiness, it turns out, works similarly. It is having the option to buy whatever you want, even if you don't exercise it. Or, as Winona Ryder's Dinky Bosetti says in the utterly forgettable-to-everyone-but-me film Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael, "It's good to want things."

It's even better if you can get 'em. But in the hierarchy of evolved thinking, it's extra-special super-duper better to want things, to totally be able to get them, and then to choose not to. So says a post over at The Atlantic, where Derek Thompson drills home the idea that it isn't the acquiring of things that matters to us, it's the act of thinking about getting them.

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"Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts to materialistic people, and because they tend to think about acquisition a lot, such thoughts have the potential to provide frequent mood boosts," Richins wrote, "but the positive emotions associated with acquisition are short-lived. Although materialists still experience positive emotions after making a purchase, these emotions are less intense than before they actually acquire a product."

Is this like being super into looking for the right porn but being disappointed in the orgasm? Or is it that, here, the orgasm is more like the thing that happens before the orgasm? Now I feel like that whole IKEA catalog "fraudulent happiness" in Fight Club wouldn't have been such a big deal if only he didn't buy the shit.

But seriously: Before poors everywhere rejoice on our proud fallback — the notion that happiness is independent of purchasing power and the buying of things doesn't make anyone happy — not so fast. Money is still money:

The idea that you can't buy happiness has been exposed as a myth, over and over. Richer countries are happier than poor countries. Richer people within richer countries are happier, too. The evidence is unequivocal: Money makes you happy. You just have to know what to do with it.

So what should you do with it?

Stop buying so much stuff

That's right. Buy experiences. Things wear out. Things get destroyed. Experiences are forever, or until you forget them. Go to Egypt! Try ostrich! Rescue a shelter animal! Live in a tiny place that uses up the least of the things, and go out into the world and be with your fellow people!

"We think that experiences can be fun but leave us with nothing to show for them," he said. "But that turns out to be a good thing." … experiences are usually shared — first when they happen and then again and again when we tell our friends. On the other hand, objects wear out their welcome. If you really love a rug, you might buy it. … But over time, it will probably reveal itself to be just a rug. Try to remember the last time an old piece of furniture made you ecstatic.

I would not ask a furniture designer or retro enthusiast to engage in that exercise, but point taken. I also feel particularly validated by this research because it points out something I've long done: spend (ha, blow) my money on experiences, not things. I still own nothing worth any real value. I have this painting I think might be worth something, but that's it. But if you want, I can recount how many meals I've enjoyed, drinks I've gulped down for good times' sake, trips I've taken last minute just to get a change of scenery.

Of course this was a bit easier for me because I grew up pretty poor. Which is to say, I could want things all I wanted to want them; I wasn't going to get them. So eventually, I realized that it wasn't worth it to want them, and I chose to think about why I thought said thing was so nice. Barring a few items I will always irrationally want, I find most things aren't worth the wanting energy. (Also, I love it when a thing I already do but feel sorta bad about turns out to be a decent habit, like drinking three cups of coffee a day).

Now, it's easier to entertain the idea of wanting something and then abstain, which to me is absolutely a form of luck. Still, I've had buyer's remorse many times, but usually because I couldn't really afford the thing and had to rationalize how much it would payoff over the long-term to have it, like a super nice mattress. But Thompson is careful to point out that this notion of the letdown doesn't negate the pleasure of buying, it just reframes it:

The finding that paying for something is less satisfying than wanting it shouldn't be confused with the idea that buying things makes us sad. It's hard to find a study showing that "retail therapy" (i.e.: shopping your way out of a bad mood) doesn't work; most research suggests that a well-timed excursion to the mall can lift one's spirits. But if Gilbert and Richins are right, then the bulk of the therapy provided by shopping is everything that happens before the check-out counter. You don't have to go into debt to achieve nearly the same emotional gains from materialism.

This should be a positively freeing concept. How does it manifest? And more importantly, can it be faked? Can you trick yourself into thinking you were about to get the thing, and then bail, your impulsive brain none the wiser? I can't imagine loading up a cart of Whole Foods goodies and then ditching it before paying — I suspect feeling bad for the person who would have to restock it would outweigh the giddiness of my sense of freedom from financial constraint. Besides, that's faux financial freedom if I can't really afford to swing $450 worth of groceries for a week. For everyone who can: Back away from that auction selling rare 18th century Chinese Quianlong jade. Or go. Take it in. Place a few bids. Then walk away.

And let us all remember the mantra, which may do us some good: Have your cake, but don't eat it. Not because you can't. Because you don't want to. Because you totally could eat it. Just remember: You totally could.