Research Reveals: Money Can Buy Happiness

By Dr. Neal Mayerson

The Secret to Buying Happiness

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “money can’t buy happiness.” However, new research reveals that there might be a way to purchase a little bit of happiness with even a small amount of money. The secret is how you spend it.

If you were given a small amount of money to spend, which of the following would you do?

  1. Spend the money on a material possession such as a new outfit, new home furnishings, or an addition to one of your collections.
  2. Spend the money on a personal experience such as going to the movies or a music concert by yourself, or getting a massage.
  3. Spend the money on a shared experience, such as a nice dinner with your partner or a sporting event with a friend.

Scientists have tested these three options and found that only one choice is superior for boosting happiness. It is choice “c.” Researchers Caprariello and Reis found that across four studies, it was the inclusion of others that was the key to happiness when it comes to spending that extra money. They framed it as “having,” “doing,” or “sharing,” meaning to spend money on a possession (having), on a solitary experience (doing), or on a social experience (sharing).

While the shared experience was the superior choice for building well-being, it turned out that both choices “a” and “b” were tied for a distant second place. The solitary experiences were no more valued than material possessions.

How Your Character Strengths Can Help You Buy Happiness

Let’s put this research into action. Turn to your innermost, uplifting, core qualities to help you: your strengths of character. Here are a few ways your character strengths can help you put this research finding to the test.

1. Your creativity can spur ideas.

Choose one person you’d like to spend more time with. Set aside 5 minutes right now to brainstorm a few ways you might spend money on a shared experience with them. Include them in the brainstorm unless you want to make it a surprise.

2. Use social intelligence to decipher best fit.

Your social intelligence strength helps you understand the passions, preferences, and feelings of others (and of yourself). Use it to consider a social experience that would help you and a friend connect. Tap into a mutual passion for good food by going to a nice restaurant or taking a cooking class. Or tap into feelings of nostalgia by doing an activity you used to love doing together years ago.

3. Your curiosity can ignite action.

The exploratory part of you can ask yourself and your loved ones this: What might be a fun and meaningful activity to do together?

4. Turn to humor and zest.

While you’re sharing time together, be mindful of bringing high energy, laughter, and playfulness. This will up the fun as well as the meaning of the activity.

5. Use kindness, specifically, the generosity element.

Generosity is known as a dimension of the character strength of kindness. You can turn to your generosity if you’re not sure what shared experience to spend money on. Research by Dunn, Aknin, and Norton has also shown that there is a happiness boost to spending a small amount of money on someone else, whether that be a friend, stranger, or for a charity.


Caprariello, P. A., & Reis, H. T. (2013). To do, to have, or to share? Valuing experiences over material possessions depends on the involvement of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(2), 199-215.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687–1688.