Money Secret #1: Buy Many Small Pleasures

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Can money buy happiness?

It can. At least in some ways.

Financial security from money management reduces divorce rates, increases life span, and just plain feels good.1,2,3

Wealth purchases life-changing vacations, variety – the spice of life, and free time – with which to actually live life.

Despite this, the average person with a family income greater than $75,000 is just 12% happier than the average person with a family income of $30,000.4 They've adapted. To them, a juicy steak tastes just a bit better than $1 ramen tastes to me.

The common refrain of money doesn't buy happiness is true, but with a caveat – for the average person, money doesn't buy happiness.

There are outliers – people who have very little money but smile like kings, and people who double their income, and in the process, also double their happiness.

I am not one of those people. Most people aren't.

After all, dozens of studies have shown it mostly true – for the average person, money doesn't buy happiness.5

There's a fix. We just need to stop being average.

Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, says,

If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right.5

Money does buy happiness, but only when used in particular, often counter-intuitive ways.

This is part one in an eleven-part series on money and happiness. Let's start with something practical and immediately implementable! 

Buy many small pleasures, rather than a few big ones. 

Money can by happiness…when used for many small pleasures.

When I discover a new piece of entertainment I really like, whether an 800-page book, 50 episode series, $1,500 computer or a new album, I devour it, as if possessed by a temporary addiction.

That's stupid. I slob through what I should be savoring. Just as stupid, I waste the power of small.

You can either eat a 12 oz cookie now, or eat one 6 oz cookie today, and another tomorrow.

You can either purchase a 3 minute, continuous massage, or two 90 second massages, separated by 20 seconds.

Which would you pick? Which would you expect to give you more total pleasure?

What about listening to the newest song released by your favorite band, or listening to the first 160 seconds… taking a 20-second break, and then finishing the song?

I sure as heck wouldn't want to have a song interrupted in the middle. That would really annoy me. No surprise, that would really annoy other people too.

In a 2008 study, participants were introduced to new music, exactly as described in the hypothetical above – half listened to the whole song at once, and the other half was interrupted in the middle for 20 seconds.

The participants were first asked which situation they expected to give them more pleasure. After the experience, they were asked how irritated they felt, and how much pleasure they experienced.

Those that were interrupted reported feeling annoyed. They also reported experiencing twice as much enjoyment than those in the continuous listening condition.6

Yes. You read that correctly. Those that were interrupted better enjoyed the experience.

The strangeness doesn't stop with just this particular study.

In a study which replicated the hypothetical massage example above, participants reported being willing to pay twice as much for the separate massages, then for the combined, continuous massage.6 Most people extract greater pleasure from having two cookies on separate days, than both at once.7

Most absurd of all, the average person enjoys television more when it has commercials, than when they have been removed.8

I know. You probably thinking that you're not that average person. Maybe – but in each of those studies, participants were consistently wrong. They expected to better enjoy the large, continuous experience. They almost never did.

You can read the studies yourself here and here.

Why do Small Pleasures Cause Happiness?

So. Why do small pleasures cause happiness, when many major purchases will never move the needle.

The answer is simple: Adaption.

A blessing to one in hard circumstances; a pain in the a&& to one in mild circumstances.

Most of us are in mild circumstances.

During any given experience, as time passes, one of three things happens:

  1. We sensitize, getting more and more enjoyment or pain.
  2. We adapt, getting less and less enjoyment or pain.
  3. We neither sensitize or adapt, getting the same enjoyment or pain over and over again.

Socializing is usually awesome because it falls under category 3 – it feels great each and every time we do it. In another post in the series, I'll talk about what types of things fall under this category because we'll want to get as much of them as we can.

Sadly, most the things we buy with money fall under the second category, with them giving us less and less enjoyment over time.

Suppose we've been given six cookies, and decide to eat them all at once.

The first cookie gives us a jolt of ecstasy. The second, a more mild buzz. The third, a pleasant sensation. The fourth, a tingle. The fifth, nothing. The sixth, stomach pain.

The total pleasure from eating those six cookies? Ecstasy + pleasant jolt + mild buzz  + tingle + nothing + stomach pain.

Graphically, it looks like this:

happiness of small pleasures

Yes, I have a weak stomach. It can only handle 6 cookies.

Although you may be able to eat more cookies before they start giving you pain – after the first few bites, just like with me and hundreds of study participants, those cookies will start giving you less and less pleasure.

It's not just cookies.

Six months ago I purchased a $1,500 beast of a computer. For all of my teenage and adult years, I always wanted a computer that worked, fast.

I'm using that computer right now… and it is giving me no more pleasure than my old $500 laptop. The first few days and weeks I was ecstatic.

But soon, rather than comparing my $1,500 beast to my $500 laptop, I started comparing it to those first few months when it worked perfectly. You know how that goes. Viruses and malware bring even the best of computers to their knees.

Total pleasure from spending $1,500 on an awesome computer? Ecstasy + pleasant jolt + mild buzz  + tingle + nothing + stomach pain.

Large house, finished basement, expensive car, brand name clothes – the same pattern applies. Over time, the object gives less and less pleasure.

We can fight back against adaptation.

Adaption goes away quickly. Have cookie number one today, cookie number two tomorrow, take a break for a day, have another cookie, and so on.

What's the result? Ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy.

Graphically, it looks like this:

small pleasures graph

We took something big – six cookies at once and divided it into many small things -six separate cookies.

The same principle applies to my $1,500 mistake. If I had spent it instead on several small things, my total pleasure would have much greater.

I should have gotten the cheapest computer that would let me remain productive, and spent the rest on smaller purchases:

Purchase 1: Ballroom dance lessons. Ecstasy.

Purchase 2: Hot dates in the city. Ecstasy.

Purchase 3: Gifts for family members. Ecstasy.

Purchase 4: Shiatsu massages. Ecstasy……. etc . etc.


Purchase 15: Drinks with friends. Ecstasy.

Total pleasure? Ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy + ecstasy.

When you can, divide up large purchases into smaller ones. By doing so, the curse of adaption can be partially subverted.

It won't always be easy, but if you give in to average desires, the outcome will also be like average – money won't buy you happiness.

More on Happiness and Money:

Small Pleasures Buy you Happiness References

1. Oklahoma tops list of highest divorce rates []
2. Why do Low-Income Couples Marry Less and Divorce More? []
3. Trends in Mortality Differentials and Life Expectancy, By Average Relative Earnings []
4. General Social Surveys, 1972-2006
5. Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right. Journal Of Consumer Psychology (Elsevier Science), 21(2), 115-125. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.02.002
6. Nelson, L. D., & Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted consumption: Adaptation and
the disruption of hedonic experience. Journal of Marketing Research, 45,
7. Linville, P. W., & Fischer, G. W. (1991). Preferences for Separating or Combining Events. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 60(1), 5-23.
8. Nelson, Leif, Tom Meyvis, and Jeff Galak (2009), “Enhancing the Television Viewing Experience through Commercial Interruptions,”Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (August), 160-172.
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18 thoughts on “Money Secret #1: Buy Many Small Pleasures”

  1. Amit,

    The problem with your posts is I can’t decide which facet(s) I want to comment on. Some days I think I could easily type up a one thousand word response to your post (like today).

    First of all, my heart sank a little when I read this: “I know. You probably thinking that youโ€™re not that average person. Maybe โ€“ but in each of those studies, participants were consistently wrong. They expected to better enjoy the large, continuous experience. They almost never did.”

    Now I need to try and frame the Continuous Creation Challenge as a series of mini challenges all strung together. I think I’ll need a marketing team to help me with this.

    Second, zombies exploding! Pure awesomeness.

    Third, I normally eat two pieces of dark chocolate at a time. Perhaps I should chop one piece up into two and have the same number of pieces, but half the overall quantity. I’m not sure that would work though because I eat it in part for the calories. Hmmm. Yet another something to think about as a result of reading Happier Human goodness.

    • Thousand word responses are always appreciated ๐Ÿ™‚

      I can see why your heart sank, but I think it should be the opposite. Your heart should rejoice! In all likelihood, there are many things you are consuming in sub-optimal ways, meaning that there’s room for delicious improvement. Although in all honesty, resisting temptation and building in breaks is a whole nother matter.

      “Perhaps I should chop one piece up into two and have the same number of pieces, but half the overall quantity.” Why not have the same total quantity, but spaced out by a few minutes?

      I was very excited to have an excuse to include exploding zombies ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I forgot to say, in response to,

      “Now I need to try and frame the Continuous Creation Challenge as a series of mini challenges all strung together. I think Iโ€™ll need a marketing team to help me with this.”

      that work enjoyment and passive enjoyment are quiet different. All of these studies were on passive enjoyment. I’ve got no idea if work is more enjoyable when done in large blocks or in smaller pieces. But you’re the second person that’s mentioned this, so perhaps I should go find out…

  2. Amit,

    I could stand to be 12% more happy. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Kidding; or rather who wouldn’t want that? Your post showing exactly how to do that. And it’s the first in eleven? Please promise me that we get more exploding zombies.
    The studies and graphs and percentages all take me back to my neurology studies and statistics class. I feel like I should start rocking the neurotransmitter formulas like an old DOS program.
    With medical bills and the economy, I am only able to get free books on my kindle (birthday gift!). But because they are spread out over days, it reduces the adaptation and equals a huge $500 bookstore spending spree which would be gone in a day. And who but the 12% happier rich can do that anyway? If course, there are books of far more value in my wish list and I would love to get them. At least one of them to spread the happiness around. But I try to think about other things that make me happy, such as friendships. As you stated, socializing always makes us happy and there is no adaptability to that. I find that incredibly profound, don’t you. We couldn’t put a price on THAT kind of happiness; no matter how many exploding zombies we can count.
    Your posts are awe inspiring and make me…happy! Thanks, Amit.

    • Hehe! Yes, 12% happier would be great ๐Ÿ™‚

      Mm… people seem to be liking the exploding zombies, so I’ll try and find some ways to bring them back in. But you’re right, socializing beats exploding zombies. Although the combination of the two is even better.

      I’m glad the post made you happy! Your mention of DOS caused me to queue up some fond memories. What’s a neurotransmitter formula?

  3. DUDE!!!! Your studies are always so dang fascinating!!!! Even after reading the facts I still want to deny that they are true! Things like cookies I can clearly relate to because I already do that. I try to spread things out to enjoy them longer. But with listening to music or watching TV…. just sounds crazy!

    I am going to be thinking about this with everything I do now. Maybe that is why they say school students should study in short 20 min session. Maybe I should also try this with my writing instead of my normal of blocking out a 2hour block and banging out a 2000 word post. maybe 6-20 minute session will be more efficient AND more enjoyable! WOW! I enjoyed this!

    • Thanks Coach!

      I feel the same way – most of the time the studies that I read confirm the beliefs that I already hold (e.g. the world is round, gratitude is good, etc…). But sometimes I read something, and I’m like – WTF! That can’t be true.

      Passive enjoyment and work enjoyment are different in many ways, so, to be honest, I’ve got no idea if shorter sessions would be more efficient and more enjoyable. All of the relevant studies were on passive enjoyment. I personally work in 30-40 min blocks, because I can’t maintain flow for longer than that. Writing is hard!

  4. Just found your blog today and can’t stop reading it. Maybe I sould break this up into smaller sessions so that I get more enjoyment out of it?

    Anywho… Being a “why?” person, I have to ponder wheter the presence of anticipation has a direct correlation to the satisfaction of the incident? Like, if I’m getting one 12 oz cookie I only get to experience the anticipation leading up to the consumption once, whereas consuming one 6oz cookie today allows me to experience the anticipation today, and then a second tomorrow results in another dose of anticipation. I’d be inerested to see the science behind all of these facts you present.

    • Hi Super! Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

      You are absolutely right – splitting up consumption increases anticipation as well as reminiscing, both of which increase enjoyment. Are you perhaps a scientist or armchair thinker?

      I will be talking about this topic more in one of the future posts in this series. However, I don’t believe anticipation and satisfaction have a direct correlation. I believe adaption also plays an important role.

      The why behind adaption is that it increases the salience of novel stimuli and increases power seeking behavior.

      Power seeking behavior – without adaption, we would be quickly satisfied with our life circumstances. In that case, we might stop seeking out salary raises, bigger homes, etc… From a modern perspective, that may be good, but from an evolutionary perspective, it is best if we seek out as much ‘stuff’ as possible (we get tired of our current circumstances, desire more, and so on).

      Novel stimuli – our baseline level of comfort is several dozens of times higher than a thousand years ago, but we are only some much smaller amount happier. Much of what makes us happy is relative – to others, but also to our pasts (e.g. being rich vs. everyone else, and being rich vs. a few months ago). Because of this, we are much more attuned to small opportunities (e.g. a small opportunity to increase our salary), as well as small threats.

      This explanation is, of course, too brief. As a “why” person myself, you can expect a full reckoning of the science at some point in the future!

  5. Amit, this is an interesting article and it’s funny to me because I’m just now working on the part of my book that has to do with hedonic adaptation!

    Regarding your computer example, would it bring you more ecstasy if you used it every other day? Like when they interrupted people listening to the songs? Just curious.

    Cool research and I love all of your graphics!

    • Thanks Bobbi! I’m looking forward to your book! Would I be correct if I guessed that it’s about resilience and bouncing back ๐Ÿ˜‰ ?

      Regarding your suggestion – sorta.

      There are 2 levels of adaption going on. The first is to having a computer (vs. no computer), and the second is to having an awesome computer (vs. a bad computer).

      I could counter the first level of adaption by not using my computer every other day; however, this would work for any type of computer. In other words, the only way to appreciate the awesomeness of my computer, is to use a bad computer every other day as well.

      Hm…. that’s an idea so absurd that perhaps I should try it. Thanks for the idea!

  6. Reminds me of the podcast Derek Halpern did about why people will choose to pay for something when they could get it for free. (It goes much deeper than that – including an interview with a scientist/author)

    But based on this post, you’d enjoy it. Nice work, Amit.

    P.S. – For future reference, I am a two cookie guy for sure.

  7. That is it, I am not going to be average!

    I completely agree with the concept that double the money, doesn’t necessarily mean double the happiness. Sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t decrease your happiness by 50%. Most people will increase their debt loan when they make more. So even if you make twice as much, you are in twice as much debt, which is absolutely no further ahead. And in my mind is twice the stress. although I would like to change that mindset!

    Totally love the Quote “If money doesnโ€™t make you happy, then you probably arenโ€™t spending it right.”

    I am looking forward to reading the entire series!

    • I love the quote too! I wish I could claim if for myself ๐Ÿ™‚

      I didn’t realize that most people increase their debt load as they make more money. That’s a shocker for me. I would think it’s the opposite. I guess I need to start hanging out with some older folks.

      Yes, let’s stop being average together!

  8. What perfect timing for this post. Yes, money can buy happiness IF it is used in the fashion you suggest. I just returned from a short vacation to Siesta Key, FL and walking every morning on the sugar sand beach was heavenly. I ate in every night and did not splurge on much (other than a massage) but the time was heavenly – a good break from the routine. With the holidays coming up – I will remember to eat two cookies rather than 12, spend on experiences rather than things and remember that money is a tool for good IF used wisely. Thanks.

    • Siesta Key, FL. The way you describe it, it certainly sounds like it was heavenly ๐Ÿ™‚

      Your description got me all excited for my upcoming trip to India. Thank you!

  9. Hi Amit!

    As always, I really enjoyed this post… Especially the graph of “# of cookies” versus “total pleasure” – something about cookies + ecstacyecstacyecstacy just tickled me. Perhaps because there’s a container of small cookies sitting behind me, and I know how much I’d enjoy eating them…

    lol. ANYway… What an interesting idea! But it totally makes sense to regularly indulge in small pleasures intead of buying one big thing. Like when I bought my car – that made me happy for a little bit, but now it’s just as messy as my old car, and my sound system doesn’t amaze me nearly as much. But my once-in-a-while coffee indulgences? Blooming tea in the morning? A new pair of earrings? Happy happy joy joy. =) And because they’re cheaper, I can indulge more. Makes sense.

    I’m looking forward to catching up on your posts, my friend. Hope all is well!!

    • Hi Kaylee,

      All is well! Once again – good to see you’re alive! Your posts are usually so good, I hope you’ll start writing regularly again.

      Ecstasy for all! The more ecstasy the better! But don’t gobble those cookies at once… If I had a container right next to me, I wouldn’t be able to resist.

      Some happiness advice can be counter-intuitive. It seems this fellow isn’t.

      Get a worse car next time, but more earrings and blooming tea. Happy happy joy joy ๐Ÿ™‚


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