I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggest: Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.
I’m on board. There are a lot of things that could be said in response to this, so here’s just one… Many of us in the “we buy too much crap that doesn’t make us happy camp” are also likely to look favorably on the behavioral science types who shed light on just how we get sold said stuff. When you walk through a mall, you’re not just making purchasing choices in a vacuum. You’re being led along a journey that has been very specifically designed by experts whose goal is to make you spend money. Exits are out of view, cookie smell is piped in, whatever it is. The same general theme can be seen in advertising. A lot of money is spent enlisting very smart people to design very sophisticated plans to get you to buy stuff that is unlikely to make you happier.
So here’s my question: how should we think about efforts to get you to buy stuff that will make you happier? Should we view advertising for travel agents more favorably than we do advertising for McDonalds? Should we look for ways to raise the $ spent on promoting the purchase of experiences relative to $ spent on promoting the purchase of things?