The Science of Minimalism: Does Less ‘Stuff’ Actually Make You More Happy?

A study of Lottery winners was once conducted back in the 1970s to observe whether or not a life-changing level of unexpected good fortune would lead to an upgrade in happiness. The results? People who had won millions of dollars were no happier than a study control group filled with people making just enough to fit their basic needs. And so those results played right into the old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness.”

In fact, three decades later, findings from a 2007 study from Chaplin & John went a little deeper when they revealed a strong link between low self-esteem and materialism. And the following year, another study by Dunn et al. suggested that simply spending money on anything, even if it isn’t for ourselves, actually could bring a bit of joy.

“While much research has examined the effect of income on happiness, we suggest that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn,” the report said. “Specifically, we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.”

It feels a tad contradictory, doesn’t it? Not only does science say money can’t buy happiness, but doing so can also be a direct sign of low self-esteem…but then again, so long as you’re not buying anything for yourself, that money can actually buy a little happiness. What’s the common denominator?

Things. It seems to be that “things” are the common denominator and the missing link between happiness and discontent. At least this is what a minimalist would argue such findings prove.

“Do experiences make people happier than material possessions?” Van Boven & Gilovich asked in a 2003 study. “In two surveys, respondents from various demographic groups indicated that experiential purchases—those made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience—made them happier than material purchases. In a follow-up laboratory experiment, participants experienced more positive feelings after pondering an experiential purchase than after pondering a material purchase. In another experiment, participants were more likely to anticipate that experiences would make them happier than material possessions after adopting a temporally distant, versus a temporally proximate, perspective. The discussion focuses on evidence that experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.”

So while there are no direct studies on the effects of the popular modern “minimalist” lifestyle and mental health, as far as science is concerned, there is evidence to back another age-old adage: “Spend your money on experiences, not things.”

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