Does Stuff Make You Happy?

I have always wanted a 1952 Jaguar XK 120. My pediatrician owned one. He was a friend of the family and one summer day he took me for a ride in it. I still remember being 7 years old and sitting in that great thundering beast of a car. The wind in my face, the deep baritone of the exhaust in my ears and the aroma of leather and hot oil in my nostrils. What a car!

Jaguar XK 120 Roadster

When I was a young 1st Lieutenant in 1971, I bought a silver Jaguar XK-E coupe, a car that has often been referred to as the most beautiful production car ever built.  I remember thinking at the time that if I just had that car, I would be happy forever. And who wouldn’t be? Just look at it. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

XK-E Coupe

But sad to say, that car didn’t make me happy. It actually made me miserable. It broke down constantly, leaked oil in great quantities and cost me a fortune to keep it running. Owning it was not nearly as much fun as wanting to own it.

It turns out my experience is not unusual. A study by Marsha Richins at the University of Missouri and reported in The Atlantic, shows that for those of us who crave “stuff”,

“after the purchase was made, and the materialists inevitably adapted to life in possession of said coveted item, what followed was a “hedonic decline,” in which their happy feelings dissipated. “

I dream of the day when people who write learned treatises use language that is accessible to ordinary readers.  “Hedonic decline”? Oh, please. Give me a break. Here’s more from  the study summary:

“In each study, the reigning materialists anticipated future purchases with strong, positive emotions, much more so than other consumers. Joy, excitement, optimism, and even peacefulness coursed through them regardless of whether they were thinking about buying a house or a toaster, next week or next year.

The materialists were also more likely “to believe that an upcoming purchase would transform their lives in important and meaningful ways.” They had faith in their upcoming acquisition’s power to improve their relationships, boost their self-esteem, enable them to experience more pleasure, and, of course, be more efficient. The intensity with which they felt the positive emotions was directly related to just how transformative they expected those transformations to be.”

In other words, for most of us, thinking about acquiring stuff makes us happier than actually owning stuff. That’s why we spend so much time online searching for things we would like to own or places we would like to go or things we would like to do. The study suggests that the anticipation of those things makes us happier than if we actually got our wish.

My old Irish grandmother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Now the scientific results are in and they clearly prove the person who dies with the most toys doesn’t win, but instead reaches the end times riddled with angst and suffering from “hedonic decline”.  I prefer to think those who die with the most friends win. But when my time comes, I sure would like those friends to bury me in a brand new, 2014 Corvette. And make it Torch Red, please!

2014 Corvette


About Steve Hanley

Totally enamored with my family, my grandkids, and seeing the world.
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