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When stress runs high and cash runs low, it’s reassuring to know that our experiences, not our possessions, are our main source of happiness. The emotional boost we get from (say) a walk in the woods or trying Frisbee golf with friends outlasts the pleasure of a new phone or pair of shoes, research shows.

How much does happiness matter?

We all know that happiness feels great. What may be surprising is how comprehensively it helps us thrive. “There’s a lot of research showing happiness is a good thing not just because it makes us feel good but because happier people are more successful in life,” says Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

“Happier people are healthier, more productive, more creative, and more charitable,” she says. “They have more successful relationships and make more money. The evidence is pretty strong that good things come to those who are happier.”

Why is happiness so powerful?

Research suggests that “in-the-moment positive emotions” (such as affection, curiosity, compassion, love, and amusement) build our coping resources—our ability to handle challenges and stress. This in turn gives us access to a more satisfying life. For example, curiosity about something can eventually lead to you becoming an expert on it, or feeling affection for someone and finding the same things amusing can turn into a lifelong supportive friendship, says a 2009 study in the journal Emotion.

How can we become happier?

More good news: Happiness is accessible. Your teen years, with all their demands and anxieties, are the perfect time to go get it. How? By gathering experiences, not stuff. Here are six ways this works:


Happy guy“Who you are is the sum of your experiences but not the sum of your things,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky, who is the author of The Myths of Happiness (2013). “Nobody would say that your identity is the kind of car you drive. Who you are as a person is more about all the experiences you’ve had throughout your life.” In a study, students reported that experiences made them feel more alive than possessions did, according to the Journal of Positive Psychology (2009).


Even when an experience goes wrong, we can appreciate it. “People tend to focus on what they learned or how they grew as a result of something negative,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky—e.g., getting caught in a thunderstorm on your way to the dance becomes a funny story.


Airplane, hiker, bikeThe memories and feelings associated with our experiences stick with us, especially if we remember and tell stories about them. In contrast, the initial spark of joy we get from tangible purchases (e.g., a shopping trip) tends to fade within weeks, experts say. “The problem is we adapt to our things, and even though they last physically, it’s our experiences that live on in the identity we form and the connections we make,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, happiness researcher and professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.


If you take a trip to Europe and then your best friend visits Mexico, you’re probably not going to compare those experiences in a way that makes you feel bad. On the other hand, if you score a new phone shortly before your friend buys the updated model, your excitement might fizzle. A 2010 analysis of eight studies confirmed that we tend to ruminate on and compare the stuff we buy more than we doubt the value of our experiences (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).


FriendsExperiences often strengthen our relationships. You sign up to run a race with your sister, you see a concert with your buddies, you take a road trip with your cousin.

“The social aspect is really one of the keys to happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky says. “Shared experiences can do a lot, and people can anticipate and reminisce about them together.”


Some purchases are “experiential”; we buy a bike or guitar to give us access to certain experiences. As long as we actually ride the bike or play the guitar, these purchases will likely do more for our happiness than a purely material purchase, such as new clothes would, according to studies by Dr. Gilovich and others.

How to get the most happiness from your experiences & your cash. As you consider how to spend your time and money, bear in mind the reasons that experiences bring us more pleasure than possessions do. 1. Choose experiences that contribute to who you are and that build your identity in a positive way: Try something new, take a class, or develop a skill. “Think about the experience of watching TV and having an identity of ‘I’m a TV watcher.’ How gratifying is that? Not terribly. But if you’re out in the wilderness camping with friends and have the identity of ‘I’m adventurous,’ that’s likely to be very gratifying,” says Dr. Gilovich. 2. Look for opportunities and situations that connect you with others: Start a hiking group that meets on weekends, or join a tennis league. If you’re a big reader, try a book club to add the social element. 3. Nurture your memories: Record your thoughts, insights, memories, and stories in a journal you can read and reread. Value pictures and gifts that elicit fond memories. Print some of your photos and keep them visible so you can be reminded of those good times. 4. Value free and low-cost experiences: “A lot of experiences that provide a lot of happiness aren’t very expensive,” says Dr. Gilovich. Look within and beyond your community: Find parks, trails, beaches, pools, and so on. “Take advantage of these settings for a gratifying break from the grind that school can be,” says Dr. Gilovich. Read: Reading about an experience looks much the same on brain scans as actually having that experience, according to a 2011 study in the Annual Review of Psychology. Reading builds our empathy (enhancing our relationships) and emotional health, and puts us into a relaxed, meditative state, studies show.

Student stories: What makes you happy

We asked students: Which you would rather receive as a gift?

  • An experience (e.g., a gift certificate for a restaurant or activity; concert tickets)
  • A possession (e.g., clothes; gadgets)
We also asked students: What has recently made you happier? Your responses were overwhelmingly about experiences, not material possessions.

“I race mountain bikes for my high school team. When I do well and make the top five, I feel accomplished and valuable.”
Allison, Roseville, California

“I got Pax East tickets (video game convention), which directly connects to my interests, and would be very cool to tell my friends about.”
—Michael, Tyngsborough, Massachusetts

“Visiting my grandparents who are in a different state made me happy because I really missed my family.”
Maria, Brooklyn, New York

“Going to California to spend the holidays with my family who live there made me happy because I barely get to see them.”
—Name and school withheld

“Hiking alone, slowly, in the mountains helped me reconnect with the natural world, with what’s real and with my own natural self, and to disconnect from words, goals, opinions, and information.”
—Elizabeth, Westminster, Colorado

“I bought a new set of speakers and I’ve noticed a drastic increase in my overall happiness. Music speaks to me, and I love hearing every little detail.”
—Sal, Houghton, Michigan

Sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

Negative thoughts can often plague your mind and zap your enthusiasm for the day. One minute you’re eager to do everything, and the next you find yourself back in your chair scrolling through posts. Happify is a mobile app that introduces positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy methods to combat the negativity that has you bogged down. It’s about doing the little things, such as playing games and answering simple questions to inspire happiness, both physically and emotionally.

The app starts with a quiz about your thoughts and daily life and then gives you a set of tracks that it believes you need to focus on: relationship turmoil, friendship improvement, stress relief, and many more. On the track itself, you have skills to improve with simple games and helpful little thought bubbles.
4 out of 5 stars

I’m a simple person who is easily amused. So of the few daily activities I had, I found them quite enjoyable. Some of my favorites were Negative Knockout, an Angry Bird-type game where you sling shots at negative feelings while listening to the serene sounds of nature.
5 out of 5 stars

Honestly, I had fun talking to the community about their progress on their own tracks, and playing the activities that were presented to me. However, if you ask me whether I actually felt happier at the end of week? Eh. It worked a few times, but I think the limitation to the free version held me back from a more fulfilling experience. Upgrading to the premium version would allow you access to more tools, activities, and higher game levels.
3 out of 5 stars

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Article sources

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, professor of psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology, University of California, Riverside.

Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 146–159. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20053039

Cohn, M. A., Frederickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., et al. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368.

Dovey, C. (2015, June 9.) Can reading make you happier? The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier

Gilovich, T., & Kumar, A. (2015). We’ll always have Paris: The hedonic payoff from experiential and material investments. In: James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna, (Eds.) Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 51, Burlington: Academic Press, pp. 147–187.

Howell, R. T., & Hill, G. (2009). The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 511–522.

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Kumar, A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Talking about what you did and what you have: Differential story utility from experiential and material purchases. In Simona Botti and Aparna Labroo (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research Volume 41, Duluth, MN: Association for Consumer Research. Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S. L., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 14, 803–855.

Merzer, M. (2014, November 23). Survey: 3 in 4 Americans make impulse purchases. CreditCards.com. Retrieved from http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/impulse-purchase-survey.php

Saxbe, D. E. & Repetti R. (2010). No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 71–81. Retrieved from

Student Health 101 surveys, July 2015, January 2017.

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193–1202.