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Burn It!: Seven Things That Do Buy Happiness

Everyone says you can't boost your well-being with your wallet. They've obviously never shopped with these self-help gurus.
Burn It!: Seven Things That Do Buy Happiness

Forking out your hard-earned dough on material things, goes the age-old argument, is disappointing in the long run—the retail equivalent of empty calories. If only you’d spent that $300 that went to your 14th pair of shoes on a trip to Breakneck Ridge with your pals instead, you’d have come away with a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As a shopping enthusiast, however, I’ve always been more than skeptical about this line of thinking. (What can I say? I dig my rugged new Moods of Norway boots just as much as I like to wear them on crazy hikes with good buddies.) 

But as it turns out, science has my back. According to Harvard professor Michael Norton, Ph.D., co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, “It’s not that money can’t buy happiness—it’s just that we’re spending it the wrong way.” Which means there is a right way. So, what are some things we can walk into a store and purchase today that will help improve our lives tomorrow? For answers I turned to an all-star team of better-living gurus—academics, life coaches, and professional organizers. Let’s shop.

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If you’re spending money on the latest novel, album, or Call of Duty—whatever—that’s all well and good. (Entertainment falls under the category of pleasure, which, along with purpose, ultimately makes you happy.) But, according to Norton, you’ll be a lot happier if you choose to pre-order that new spy novel or video game online, then wait for it to be delivered at a later date. Why?

It has to do with a psychological effect economists call the “pain of paying,” which states that if consumers feel the cost of a purchase immediately, they’re likely to enjoy it less. Says Norton, “When you pre-order your entertainment”—say, a DVD of Liam Neeson’s Taken 3, now in theaters—“by the time they send it to you, you’ve already forgotten the money you paid, so it feels like it’s free.”

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Amy Spencer, author of The Happy Life Checklist, points to a 2009 study on the psychology of consumer spending by San Francisco State University, which found that purchases that create experiences you can share with others make you happier. She also cites a 2007 study in the Journal of Socio-Economics that calculates a yearly worth for having an “active” social life: $133,000. For the study, economists from the U. of London’s Institute of Education surveyed more than 8,000 homes and employed regression analysis on their findings. They also valued a happy marriage at $105,000 a year, and the cost of a “separation” at $225,000—that’s before alimony.

According to Spencer, “The lesson is: If you want to improve your life with what you buy, make sure it engages you with other people.” To be more specific? “I’d invest in a grill,” she says, which will allow you to “spend your time in the right places. In this case, that’s near some buddies and burgers.” She singles out the Weber Performer Platinum (, $350), which has a hidden propane gas starter but uses charcoal to cook, “so you get the ease of gas but the props for cooking with real fire, caveman-style.”

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There’s a man drawer somewhere in every guy’s home, where he keeps his keys, wallet, tape measure, pocket knife, Grandpa’s cuff links, and assorted knickknacks—even if that “drawer” is, in fact, just a messy dining room table or some other highly cluttered space. You need to get this under control, says Karen Storey, a professional organizer, who advises that you confine your personal effects to an actual drawer and take the extra step of investing in a good cutlery divider to keep it organized.

“On a daily basis, it’s very important to establish order to the things you’ll always need, such as your keys, for when you’re desperate to get out of the house,” she says. She endorses the expandable bamboo cutlery tray from The Container Store ($30,, which adjusts to fit most drawers. “This is a small, very simple purchase that goes a very, very long way.”

According to life coach Gabrielle Bernstein, ultra-high-end shampoos, soaps, body washes, etc., are the best kind of “Veblen goods”—what economists call higher-priced status symbols that elicit feelings of exclusivity (the name references economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”). Believe it or not, Veblen goods can provide a profound psychological boost.

For starters, says Bernstein, these high-end goods are pretty affordable—you’re not shelling out for a Ferrari, after all, but you’re still experiencing Ferrari-type levels of fanciness when you use them. “They’re a win-win. You’re clean, and you feel clean—so you feel better about yourself.” And, she argues, better shower supplies go a long way with the ladies: “If you have Kiehl’s in your shower, it’s a turn-on. It shows self-care is a priority. Plus, she has a nice product to use. So display it prominently.”

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In our everyday lives, we often take the sense of touch for granted, but it can have a significant impact on mood. According to an MIT study published in the journal Science in 2010, texture impacts your psyche: Something really rough in your palm can lead to feelings of harshness, for example, and a hard chair can trigger the stress of a corporate meeting. The good news is that these “haptic sensations” can be exploited to your advantage.

As Maxwell Ryan, founder and CEO of Apartment Therapy, points out, there’s nothing in your life you’ll touch more often than your bed sheets. He preaches the benefits of ultra-soft bed linen—like the standard microfiber set from Sheex (from $149;—and argues that they’ll improve your well-being immeasurably over time. “The Sheex have such a unique feeling to them; they’re soft and warm and cozy.” Those are haptic home runs you can enjoy every night and every morning, regardless of whether anyone else is with you.

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Of all the benefits of owning a cool dog, the most important one is commitment, says Paul Dolan, Ph.D., author of Happiness by Design. “A meaningful purchase should continue to draw attention to itself and not fade after five minutes,” he explains. Nothing accomplishes that like a pet, which will give back in ways you won’t even realize.

Dolan cites research showing that the simple act of petting an animal lowers blood pressure, making it, essentially, a chemical-free calmant—nature’s Xanax. When scientists studied a group of stockbrokers suffering from hypertension, they found owning a canine played a big role in helping them relax.

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What if I told you there’s an affordable device that not only handles the same calls and texts the way your smartphone does, but also challenges you to be savvier and doubles as a playful conversation starter?

Several new studies have shown that we’ve outsourced too much of our thinking to the Googles in our pockets, which has adversely affected not only the math-centric areas of our brains, but also the part of the brain that affects memory, concentration, and attention span. If you too are feeling digital dementia, maybe it’s time to get reacquainted with a blast from the past: a 2005-era app-free flip phone. Before you judge, remember that if it’s good enough for investor Warren Buffett, quarterback Andrew Luck, and Jack Bauer—all high-profile flip-phone snappers—it might be good enough for you and me, too.

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