memories & happiness
This post from Jonah Lehrer is interesting, but I also wonder if it’s entirely correct:
Why don’t things make us happy? The answer, I think, has to do with a fundamental feature of neurons: habituation. When sensory cells are exposed to the same stimulus over and over again, they quickly get bored and stop firing. (That, for instance, is why you don’t feel your underwear.) This makes sense: the brain is an efficient organ, most interested in the novel and new. If we paid attention to everything, we’d quickly be overwhelmed by the intensity of reality. Unfortunately, the same logic applies to material objects. When you buy a shiny new Rolex watch, that watch might make you happy for a few days, or maybe even a week. Before long, however, that expensive piece of jewelery becomes just another shiny metal object – your pleasure neurons have habituated to the luxury good. [….]
[The] virtue of experiences is that, while material things get diminished over time (we habituate to the pleasure, and then have to deal with the inevitable repairs), pleasant memories tend to become more pleasant. We forget about the delayed flights and jet lag but remember the lush rainforest hike, or the fancy meal in Paris. The vacation might be long gone but it’s still making us happy.
Lehrer is channeling this piece in the Boston Globe, the premise of which is basically that money can’t buy you happiness if all you do with it is buy things. Memories on the other hand, can indeed make us happy, so buying them is perfectly fine. I think this is true to a degree.
Probably the most common way to buy memories is to go out for dinner. Eating out is a great way to spend money on memories. You go out to a nice restaurant, spend exorbitant sums on food that often looks better than it tastes, and go home with a much thinner wallet. What have you gotten for your hard-earned cash? More than the food, you’ve purchased a fond memory of good conversation, too much wine, and loads of ambiance. And if you’re like me, then you find this whole memory-purchasing thing quite addicting. It’s so much more fun and memorable to go have somebody else cook your food and wash the dishes.
It’s also amazing how much memories cost once you add in all the drinks, appetizers, and desserts – not to mention the cab, if you’re so inclined, or the airfare to Paris (or wherever). Indeed, Americans are projected to spend almost $566 billion dollars going out wining and dining this year – 41% of the total amount [pdf] projected to be spent in the private sector on health care in 2009. That’s a lot of memories.
That’s also a lot of money that could have gone toward buying things. Now, I understand the argument that the fancy new watch will not buy you the same kind of happiness that a quality weekend away can purchase. But a balance has to be struck. A lot of the things we buy are not really necessities, but they can make life easier, more enjoyable – even happier. And a lot of the things we buy really are necessities: boring, humdrum, and forgettable.
I know some people who continually spend money going out to eat, yet never bother to purchase new appliances. Sometimes spending money creating great memories can make it that much more difficult for you to save up for a new car or a down-payment on a house. I’d say that when buying memories becomes more like buying things the two become basically indistinguishable. Beyond that, most people can’t afford really lavish trips, so the same problem of comparison let-down can occur with memories too. Here’s Lehrer on how this works with material goods:
Of course, your Rolex can become a problem for everybody else, since it raises the material expectations of all those poor souls wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. [Such luxury items are known as “positional goods,” since part of their appeal is that they signal your social position.] Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products – from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes – and you can begin to see the “hedonic treadmill” that afflicts people in developed countries. Not only do their brain cells automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expensive expectations. Of course, not everybody can afford a Rolex or a Lexus, which means that we are constantly being disappointed.
I see no reason this can’t also apply to what we do – earlier I quoted Lehrer mentioning “rainforest hikes” and “fancy meals in Paris.” Perhaps these experiences are the Rolex’s of the memory-investment-crowd. Not that memories should be valued this way – it’s who not where that counts, obviously – but then if it’s “who” that counts, shouldn’t that apply equally to our material possessions? (It’s not the size of the TV, but who we watch it with, etc. ) I just have a hard time believing that memories and material goods are any different once they’re items that are purchased. (You can make memories for free, by the way….)
I think a better way to look at money is this: if you live within your means, money will make you happy, or at least it won’t hamper your happiness. Nothing is directly correlated to happiness, after all. There are too many factors involved. But if you live within your means, it doesn’t matter if you spend on charity, giving, memories, or buying yourself that new iMac – you’ll be happy because you stayed within your means and didn’t lose control.
On the other hand, if you overspend it won’t matter if it was on a trip to Paris or a brand new Windows 7 custom gaming P.C. If you go into debt traveling or you go into debt buying a nice car, either way you’ve become a carrier of debt. That has its consequences. And maybe, in the long run, you’ll actually get more use out of the car or the television than you would out of the fancy dinner, memories be damned – or they will facilitate their own memories – memories of watching movies with family or taking day trips. But if you do it outside your means, that’s going to add a level of financial burden and stress to your life that will negatively effect your happiness. Good memories are soon replaced with financial regrets.
Or, put another way: