You actually can buy happiness, but it’s not how you think

"...I want to find out whether there's any truth in the belief that money can't buy happiness."

“…I want to find out whether there’s any truth in the belief that money can’t buy happiness.”

I often write about things I don’t like spending money on:

  • Balloon payments for a car. Remember those, the deposits you still have to pay AFTER you’ve paid for the car for the last 72 months. The Americans have a better term for these types of loans, they call it a bullet loan. Bullets are scary so this makes sense, balloons are happy which you won’t be when your payment is due. Don’t let someone aim a loaded bullet your way when you make a car purchase, it’s going to hurt, a lot.
  • Expensive label clothing. Are your genitals on display? No? Then consider yourself dressed. Feel free to spend money on quality clothing though, if it lasts a long time it is often more cost effective than buying cheap clothing more often.
  • Outrageous unit trust fees. I hate them, the people who dream them up, and all of the suckers who fall for them which means they’re still not extinct. Fortunately they are on the decline, and even Steen Jacobson, the CIO of Saxo Bank knows their days are numbered.
  • Taxes. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if most of the money didn’t go towards Nkandla, #1’s girlfriend at SAA who managed to lose R1.4 billion last year, our international relations minister with a hole in her head or the SABC boss who lied about finishing school, and now forces everyone else to lie about the news and to literally sing his praises. In a less corrupt country I’d have no problem with this. I’d even happily pay the Swedish 60% tax rate if the money would go back into social services rather than the pocket of politically connected hyenas.
  • Bond payments. You can argue with me until you’re blue in the face. Your house is not an investment, finish and klaar. I don’t care if you have one, but don’t kid yourself, it’s a lifestyle purchase, not an investment. The only positive I see is that it force the typical South African’s with money allergies to save.

Today I want to talk about something I love spending money on. It’s appropriate too, because I’ve recently spent a lot on it!

We got engaged here, well not right here, but in a windowless hotel room. What were they thinking...

We got engaged here, well not right here, but in a windowless hotel room. What were they thinking…

As some of you already know, my wife and I love to travel. We got engaged in the Seychelles, eloped to Paris to get married, and have just returned from what I think has been our best holiday ever, traveling through Europe. Our trip took 16 days, 6 flights, 5 countries, 3 train rides and 400 kilometers cycling along the Danube river in Austria (I’ll post some pictures at the bottom of the post).

It was the most amazing time. You really get to experience a country by bicycle. Riding through villages most tourists skip is great. The highlight of our trip was a place called Melk, we’d never heard of it, never gave it much of a thought on the trip apart from it being one of the places we booked accommodation, but it absolutely blew us away. A 1000+ year old village with what they call an abbey on the hill. Well this abbey makes the Vatican look like a tiny corner parish.

We got to meet so many local people, and not just locals who work in hotels or give tours, but regular people. It seems the Austrians ride bikes for their holidays. There were whole families, sometimes even with the family dog in a trailer. Grandparents taking their grand-kids for a holiday bike tour, school kids on holiday going the wrong way, upstream means uphill kids. We saw some of the groups every day, so we got to know each other which was great fun. Everyone really loved the fact that we were South African, they would all respond in pretty much the same way “Ooh South Africa, Wow!“. Everyone, without fail.

The beauty of a cycle tour is that you’re exposed daily to the great outdoors. The problem with a cycle tour is that you’re exposed daily to the great outdoors. It was great getting in touch with nature, seeing hundreds of kilometers of tiny colourful flowers, having a nap under some trees next to the river, watching the swans being beautiful all the time. The mountains were literally out of the sound of music, and we had to cross the river a few times on little  ferries, some were un-powered and just used the current and a rope strung across the river to swing from side to side.

After a long hot day in the saddle, sitting in the rain is a pleasure!

After a long hot day in the saddle, sitting in the rain is a pleasure!

We only had two days where we got rain soaked, luckily both were just for a short time. Once was inside a restaurant, when the rain came through the light fittings and shorted everything out, fortunately this led us to a hidden gem of a place which made great burgers and sweet potato fries that were almost a religious experience! My wife and I often joked during our trip that it’s just a 50km, 160km or whatever km cycle back to get some more of those!

We loved riding through the little villages, stopping at the local restaurants for lunch which was often a dessert! We passed through farm yards, where you could help yourself to any fruit which has already fallen from the tree. During the second half of the trip we were in vineyards where you could pick up a bottle of wine or some marmalade and leave your Euros in a jar for payment. I have a feeling this sales technique wouldn’t work very well in SA…

On average we’d do between 40km and 60km a day, but at a really easy pace as it was a holiday not a race. We probably only pedaled for about 4 hours a day, but there were a lot of breaks too, usually a long one for lunch when we were about halfway, and a few shorter ones probably every 10km or so. You get to talk a lot on a bicycle tour since there’s no radio for distractions and you really do connect with everything, and everyone around you during the ride.

A couple of hours after lunch we’d get to the village we’d booked to stay in. The clothes we wore that day would get washed and hung up followed by a long shower and some time on the bed. As it was light until nearly 10pm, we’d usually go exploring around 7pm, and either find a restaurant or a shop to get some dinner. The next day we’d pack the bikes and head off again after breakfast. It was such a great experience, well worth the cost.

As you can see, we like to spend money on experiences rather than things, as we get far more joy out of doing stuff than we do buying stuff.

I always thought we were an exception, but it seems that science agrees with us.

Recently a professor from Cornell University finished a 20 year study dealing with the relationship between spending money and happiness. The results were pretty clear, spending money on things only makes you happy for a very short amount of time, while spending money on experiences makes you happier for a far longer period of time, and potentially forever.

Austria is Beautiful

Austria is Beautiful

This makes sense to me. When you buy something it’s new and adds some excitement to your life, but after a while you get used to it, and it becomes normal. The day your new 50 inch LED TV is delivered will probably feel like a pretty good day, but after a few months you’ll be completely used to it, and it won’t influence your happiness anymore at all.

Even buying another 50 inch LED TV wouldn’t make you any happier, as you really can’t watch more than one at a time, and I think that putting a 50 inch TV in the bedroom probably means you don’t have much of a sex life.

Then because it’s a complex piece of electronics, it will break, which will make you quite upset. Not nearly as upset as when your neighbour buys a 60 inch 3D LED TV for less than you paid for your 50 inch. Those damn Jones’s!

Experiences have none of these problems, and according to science, will deliver long lasting happiness.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Experiences become part of your identity. You are basically a sum of everything you’ve seen, all the things you’ve done, all the places you’ve been, and all the people you’ve been in contact with. You might really like your TV, but it’s not who you are. Even if you think your BMW defines you and is part of your identity, it still remains separate from who you really are. Not so for your experiences, you actually are the person who proposed to your wife in a windowless room in the Seychelles (what were the designers thinking…) on your birthday. Well you’re not, I am, but you get the general idea.
  • Anticipating experiences also makes you happier. I’d noticed this myself, once I started planning an adventure, I felt really excited about it, and it stuck with me all the way to when I actually got to go. I thought I might be a little weird enjoying the planning nearly as much as the doing, but no, science says I’m quite normal.
  • Experiences also don’t give you buyers remorse. Have you ever bought something you really thought you wanted, only to find you regretted it soon after? Maybe your Apple Watch doesn’t really seem as cool as you thought it would be, or you hate charging the damn thing every day so you go back to your normal watch, or if you’re under 40, checking the time on your phone. Seeing that very expensive piece of unused equipment on the shelf every day could end up reminding you of your poor spending choice.
  • Experiences leave you with happy memories. Have you ever said to someone “Do you remember when I bought that new handbag, ah it was such a good day”? Me neither, but with experiences even the bad ones become good memories after enough time, for example “Can you remember when we got lost in Venice, and then it started raining so much the streets flooded so we were walking around holding our shoes? What a day!”.
  • There’s also no need to feel you have to keep up with the Jones’ with experiences. If you had a great time backpacking in Asia while your cousin had a great time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, neither of you will be jealous, rather you’ll be interested in the experience the other person had.
  • Things gather dust, but experiences gather memories. You can take all your memories with you, and the best ones will stick with you forever.

Here’s some of those pictures I promised earlier. Also, one of the forum members suggested we start a holiday picture thread so we could see what everyone does with their time off work, find the thread here. If you’ve got something you’d like to share please post it there too.

  • We started in London, yes that's about as un-londonish as you can get in a picture, but we picked the hottest week of the year to be there.
  • Next up was Belgium, it was blooming beautiful.
  • On to Germany, as you can see, we only do 5 star accommodation.
  • From Germany we quickly crossed into Austria, where it was us, the bikes and the Danube.
  • Except when we weren't near the Danube, taking the road less traveled.
  • We usually made our way back to the river again though.
  • My wife says this is a dork on a bike. But this dork never burnt his face or neck. Oh yes, we washed clothes every day, so we always had something hanging on the front or back of the bike to dry out.
  • On one of the days we passed by a ferry without noticing. It meant that a 60km day ended up being an 80km a day. Those are tiring!
  • Melk, probably the highlight of the trip, and we never even knew there was anything to see there until we arrived. It was an amazingly good surprise.
  • This place has the best dessert. Something like a dumpling soaked in syrup with cooked peach inside. On a bike tour you're allowed dessert every day.
  • We cycled up to Vienna, spent a couple of days there and then took a train to Budapest.
  • The perfect cure for sore muscles is a day spent in the thermal baths.

What would you rather spend your hard earned cash on? (both is not an option here, choose the one you like just a little more if you must!)

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  • Jo Martin

    So true! My wife and I save all our extra cash for 11 months of the year for the privilege of spending 3 amazing weeks in the indigenous forests of the Eastern Cape. Hiking and quiet evenings with no distractions…. More importantly, every time a few more rands are added to the holiday kitty, the anticipation is almost as good as walking through those glorious forests again. The Jones’s can keep up with us – soul food.

  • Sounds like a great time away, I’ve always wanted to do some long term hiking, like the Appalachian trail in the US. Do you set up camp in campsites or just wherever your fancy takes you? Also is it just me that thinks that your tree appears to have a face?

  • Bevan Jones

    To quote my Scottish cousin, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson. Being a batchelor again means being able to spend your money selfishly once more and I thus fully agree with you, travel provides the best value for money. Specifically to show my kids the world and the people that inhabit it. Next year we are joining our Scottish Clan for “a splash of tartan” at the Edinburgh Festival and Tattoo and then heading off to find that elusive Templar buried treasure in the Highlands… Might take in parts of Templar France as well and seal the “Auld Alliance” again…. Patrick, as you’re a numbers guys, work out the return from a treasure worth trillions in today’s money compared to an investment in flights and hotels…

  • Raymond BC

    Hey Patrick, are those carry-on friendly packs? Which ones did you go for?

  • Hey Raymond, yeah they are. We need them to be as the bikes travel as luggage. We bought osprey porter 46 packs. They’re front opening so easy to get to things, the straps fold away so they won’t get torn off by converter belts, and at 46 liters about as big as you can carry on. We love them!

  • Raymond BC

    Wow, perfect, thx for the review these are the exact ones I have my eye on for my next splurge on happiness. Did you get them in ZA? Now I just need to convince my travel partner that carry on is the only way.

  • We ordered them in London, but Drifters stock Osprey packs. They never had the porter 46, but they said they could get them for just a few hundred more than we paid. 46 liters is actually plenty, I can pack for a week easily. For multi-week trips I just wash my clothes.

  • Raymond BC

    Personally I only do carry on. Every time I do a trip, I wish I had less stuff with me. I have a set of gear for a multi week trip that fits into a Salomon 20l trail running bag. In a porter 46 it is going to be luxury. Thx for the personal review.

  • Sounds like a great event Bevan. My dad is a Scot, though not enough of one for me to get a passport sadly. He’s quite a big guy, so he says we can chop his kilt up when he passes on and make one for all three us boys!

    I’d have to compare the value of the treasure with your odds of finding it. It’ll probably be a slightly better investment than the lottery!