With Small Pleasures, a Little Money can buy Happiness

Girl blowing dandelions The little things in life really count! When we were tiny, it didn’t take a huge financial outlay to amaze us and fill us with joy. Today, a favorite restaurant, a picnic in the park, a night bowling with the kids or even a goofy yo-yo can brighten the day. When we consider what used to make us happy when there was little—or no—spending money in the bank, it’s a good reminder of how small price tags can have big benefits.

Economic uncertainty is still a factor today, so what a better topic than small pleasures? It’s not just that small pleasures cost less. In many cases, they’re actually better when buying happiness!

A Right Way to Spend

In an excellent summary of positive psychology research, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson addressed the elusive relationship between money and happiness. The resulting Journal of Consumer Psychology article “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right”[1] came to my attention recently. It’s a good springboard for talking about money and happiness.

As discussed in my earlier blog Does Money Buy Happiness? Sometimes, the relationship between money and happiness is complex. Decades of studies suggest that money can buy happiness, but only a little bit and only up to a point. So the correlation between money and happiness is modest. Many of us think we should get more happiness for our money. After all, wealth can buy lots of the ingredients of a happy life: better nutrition and health, more meaningful work, more freedom, and more time with family and friends. Since money leads to those things, why don’t wealth increases connect more strongly to happiness?

According to Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson, we miss our chance for buying happiness by making purchases we think will make us happy but don't. The article covers eight principles for spending to maximize happiness. One is purchasing small pleasures.

Small-Ticket Items and Happiness

Our brains are exceptionally good at adapting to our environment. That’s why the research suggests that more happiness results from buying many small pleasures rather than a few big ones. We think a yacht, nice Brazilian hardwood floors, a sports car or a dream vacation will make us happy, but we adapt to them after the initial burst of happiness fades. They become same old, same old.

However, we adapt less quickly to things with the following characteristics, so the benefits are extended:

  • Novel or unusual
  • Surprising
  • Difficult to understand or explain
  • Uncertain
  • Frequent but varied

Interestingly, these are most easily attained as small pleasures.

Little by Little: Your Happy Meter

The psychological principle called “diminishing marginal utility” also favors small pleasures. The idea is that the first scoop of your favorite ice cream (for me, chocolate coconut!) brings more pleasure than the second or third scoops. Similarly, if you already have a lot of “stuff,” getting more doesn’t bring the same new-purchase satisfaction.

Because time between each pleasure seems to reset your happy meter, you’ll get more out of a single scoop of ice cream each week for a month than four scoops in a sitting. Small pleasures are also easier to divide up and spread across time. After all, it's pretty tough to buy a car in pieces. Yet for the mechanically inclined like my uncle, building your own hot rod piece by piece can be enjoyable. You can’t spread a Hawaiian vacation out over several months—unless you live in the “Pineapple State”—but taking frequent mini-vacations or nearby getaways can be a happiness-inducing way to spend your vacation budget.

Stop and Savor!

Gratitude also increases happiness. If you’ve made a big purchase, remind yourself to pause and enjoy it periodically. Don’t let that new floor become just like any other surface to walk on. Don’t take your new car for granted.

Remember, for excellent buys on happiness, savor that first bite of your favorite meal, the beverage with a friend and an evening out with a loved one. There is nothing wrong with the big pleasures, but for happiness sake don't sacrifice the small pleasures to get them!

[1] Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson. If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right. The authors’ version of the article is available at

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