Research Shows That Travel Spending Can Indeed Buy Happiness

May 20, 2019

Research shows that, if spent correctly, money can buy happiness. Mark Twain nailed it: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” Looking back on their past decisions about whether to purchase experiences, one study shows 83 percent of people sided with Mark Twain, reporting their biggest single regret was one of inaction, of passing up the chance to have an experience when the opportunity came along. The opposite was true for material goods; most people’s biggest regret was buying something that they wish they hadn’t.

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Spending money on experiences— food, travel, entertainment—over material goods doesn’t just inoculate you against regret, but can also make you happier. Think of purchases you’ve made with the goal of increasing your own happiness. Consider one purchase that was a material thing, a tangible object that you could keep, like a piece of jewelry or furniture, some clothing or a gadget. Now think about a purchase you made that gave you a life experience—perhaps a trip, a concert or a special meal.

If you’re like most people, remembering the experience brings to mind friends and family, sights and smells. In study after study, people are in a better mood when they reflect on their experiential purchases, which they describe as “money well spent.”

But not all experiences are created equal. Research conducted over the last decade suggests that trying something new might make you happier than your old favorite. How many times has your family faced a decision: dine at your favorite, tried-and-true restaurant, or take a gamble and try somewhere new—say, the sushi fusion or vegan tapas place? Or perhaps the choice is between the beautiful Caribbean island you’ve been to three times, where you’ve got a favorite beach, restaurant and snorkeling spot, or an island you’ve never been to?

If you’re like most, you typically opt for your familiar favorite experience. It’s comfortable and the outcome is reasonably predictable—you’ll enjoy it as much as you have in the past.

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But don’t you want something better? In one of my research projects with Elizabeth Dunn, with whom I co-wrote the 2013 book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, we worked with Ferran Adrià, the brilliant chef of the former Spanish restaurant elBulli, the only restaurant to be named the world’s best restaurant five times by Restaurant Magazine. He and his team designed two different meals for diners. The “nostalgia meal” included dishes like ham croquettes and steak tartar. The “surprise meal” had dishes like a mojito sandwich and smoke foam. For dessert? Either tiramisu or upside down coffee. (You can guess which dessert was the more surprising.) Although diners often choose nostalgia when dining out, it turns out that our “surprise meal” offered a unique and peak experience for diners.

So go ahead and take a chance the next time you’re faced with a decision. The possibility of experiencing the extraordinary can make you happier than a guaranteed average experience.