The Journal Psychological Science just published a complicated, long, and fascinating study about happiness. The full text is tucked behind a paywall, but it’s great reading if you can get your hands on it.
The authors arranged four separate experiments, looking at the effects of getting things versus experiencing things, and how the anticipation of waiting might affect happiness. Some of the studies involved just imagining a future purchase or vacation; another one had study subjects answer brief texts about how they felt throughout the day. Some of the authors’ findings were really quite consistent across study modes, and though the study subjects were all adults I think a lot of this would apply just as well to kids.
Some of their conclusions.
You get more happiness out of doing things than out of having things. A vacation where you go somewhere, or a trip to the park or having ice cream — these are experiences, things you do, and you don’t get to keep anything afterwards but your memories. These experiences are contrasted in the study with material things you might get, like a new toy or a new car. (It occurs to me that many “things” are actually both materials and experiences, like a book—but let’s leave that grey zone out for now.) Several aspects of this study, and a lot of other research, has shown that people get more happiness and more long-lasting happiness from experiences than things. Why? The strongest reason seems to be that we quickly habituate to the things we have. New sneakers? Great. In a day or so you don’t even notice you’re wearing them. The “happiness effect” of things seems fleeting, whatever the things are. In other words: Stuff will not make you happy.
The authors also looked at anticipation — what it means to have to wait for something. What they found might be surprising at first: People, overall, enjoyed waiting for things and experiences, and in fact got greater happiness from their things and experiences the longer they waited. Anticipation and waiting increased enjoyment. This increased happiness applied both to things and experiences, but was much stronger for experiences. People who planned vacations well in advance enjoyed their vacations way more than people who didn’t have to wait. People who waited to purchase a new jacket ended up enjoying their jackets a little more than people who bought them right away.
So: having stuff doesn’t make you as happy as doing stuff; and having to wait to do something makes you even happier than getting to do it right away.
Does this sound true for children as well as adults? You bet. Young and old, we concentrate too much on what we want to have. Once we have what we wanted, meh, we just want something else. The quicker we get it, the more meh we become.
My advice: Go take your kids outside. Plant some flowers or brussels sprouts, eat some ice cream, and catch fireflies. Then let them go.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.