Money Secret #3: The Stoic’s Guide To Buying Happiness

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Can you buy happiness? How much impact does money actually have on happiness? Discover the stoic view of money.

All action is based on prediction.

Every time you do something, its because you or your subconscious brain has predicted that doing so will leave you better off than the alternative.

Decide to stay with your romantic partner? It's because you predict they'll make you feel better than being alone or with someone else.

Spend money? It's because you predict purchasing that object will make you feel better than buying nothing or something else.

Perfect the art of prediction, and no joke, you can take over the world. You'd be able to pick the best romantic partner, best career, best stock portfolio, best education, best everything. No more returns.

In the form of conscious deliberation and subconscious emotion, prediction directs our behavior.

We're passingly good at it.

We feel that spending time with friends and family will make us happy. So we do it and feel happy.

We deliberate that going for a jog will give us a high. So we do it and feel high.

We deliberate that slacking off at work will get us fired, which in turn will make us feel bad. So we work hard, keep our job, and avoid feeling bad.

But when it comes to money, passingly good becomes pathetically wrong.

Desire distracts.

A college student dreams of becoming a lawyer making a cool $150,000. He's been told he's good at arguing and has an eye for detail, he's hardworking and ambitious, and most important of all, he wants that $150,000.

Lawyers are four times more likely to develop depression and two to six times more likely to commit suicide.1,2

Desire distracts  – only 4 in 10 lawyers would recommend their career to others. What happened to the quality of life?

Why gamble and hope to be one of the 40%?

A yelper has spotted a new Mexican restaurant. It's got a bad rating, but why not give it a try – it's got a great looking menu, complete with too good to be true pictures of its food.

Desire distracts – less than 1 in 10 yelp users enjoy their meal at a low rated restaurant.3 What happened to the quality of food?

Why gamble and hope to be one of the 10%?

Just because the college student desires to be a lawyer or the yelper desires to eat at that Mexican restaurant, doesn't mean that doing so will make them happy.

The strength of your desire DOES NOT EQUAL the amount of happiness that ;ies at the end of the road. 

Usually, it does, but when it comes to money, shi*t goes crazy – our desire gets hijacked for purposes not our own.

I'd prefer me and my family to be the ones benefiting from my earning and spending behavior. All too often, I'm not. All too often, we're not.

Considering how much of our lives revolve around money, that's a problem. This desire hijacking is the biggest obstacle to our successfully buying happiness.

But there's a fix – free and easy to implement.

No, not hiding in a cave and trying to avoid the 1,000+ daily desire distorters (also known as marketing messages) thrown our way.

Something much easier.

You wouldn't believe me if I told you now, so first, more on how money makes your usually intelligent brain go haywire.

  1. Your memory becomes foolish.
  2. Your extrapolations become foolish.
  3. Your desire becomes foolish.

1. Your memory becomes foolish.

foolish memory - money and happiness

I know, you've never had a conversation like that in your head. But a lot goes on under the hood, below conscious awareness.

Imagine that you purchased a nice, $80,000 car a few years ago. You enjoyed it. It's getting old. Now it's time to buy another – a newer model. If you enjoyed it once, you'll probably enjoy it again.


Have you ever noticed that other people have an uncanny ability to enjoy expensive purchases, even when you can tell they were blatant mistakes?

I've noticed that behavior in myself. I spent $1,000 on a training course a few months ago.

Every time I think back on it, there's a voice that says, “It was a mistake, you freaking moron!” But that voice is quickly overwhelmed – the idea that I wasted $1,000 feels so bad that I immediately search for justifications – reasons why I didn't really make a mistake, “Oh, but because of that purchase I learned how to do x, y, and z… that'll probably come in handy… eventually.”

It's called cognitive dissonance.

1. It's psychologically painful to simultaneously hold conflicting beliefs.


2. The brain automatically and without conscious awareness changes one or more of those beliefs to bring them into alignment.

cognitive dissonance purchasing behavior part 2

Does this seem like voodoo magic? Nope, it's real and it happens all the time. Two examples:

One: Liberals rarely read the Wallstreet Journal and conversely, conservatives rarely read the New York Times. The information from those other sources conflicts with their preexisting beliefs.

cognitive dissonance selective information part 1

The subconscious answer – avoid reading the conflicting information.

cognitive dissonance selective information part 2

I'm just as guilty as anyone else. I rarely read information from conservative sources.

Two: The Innocence Project frees prisoners who were wrongfully convicted using newly available DNA technology. So far they've only been able to free 302 people, despite thousands of innocent people remaining in prison. It's not for lack of resources – it's because the effort receives massive resistance from prosecutors and police.

cognitive dissonance innocence project part 1

The subconscious answer – discredit the source of conflicting information.

cognitive dissonance innocence project part 2

Cognitive dissonance is real, and it happens all the time – for more, in-depth examples:
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

The larger a purchase, the greater the dissonance when it turns out bad. And the more likely we'll subconsciously convince ourselves we liked it… even when we actually didn't.

You may be resisting the idea that you dislike your career because you've already invested so much time into it.

You might resist the idea of making a change – of going somewhere else for vacation this year or buying a different car, laptop, or phone brand because you've already invested so much time and money into them.

If you want the best for your money, you're going to have to deal with cognitive dissonance. Lucky us, we can just sidestep it.

2. Your extrapolations become foolish.

You've only got $15 to spend on entertainment this week. You're a TV junkie. It's either season 7 of Friends or season 2 of Heroes.

Fixed budget, one choice. Well, you could just download them both illegally, but let's assume you're not a pirate.

If you're anything like most people, you decide by going back into your memory and comparing how much you enjoyed each respective series. Whichever one you've gotten more pleasure out of, you purchase the next season of.

Common sense. Except things change. The future isn't always the same as the past.

I should have listened when my friends told me Heroes had gone downhill after season 1. But of course, I like to think I know best.

Usually, I do. But when it comes to spending money, my college degree and Latin honors don't seem to do me much good.

Marketing messages warp our extrapolations.

Let's say you see an advertisement for Axe body spray – you know the kind I'm talking about – a guy sprays himself and then becomes irresistible. If not, a nice refresher:

warning, don't watch at work or with children around

If you're a potent man, like me, seeing all of those scantily clad women sparks desire. Here's where we get tricked, and how marketing companies stay in business –

  1. We men get a surge of desire (or not, if we're married).
  2. We associate that desire with Axe body spray.
  3. We predict that if we purchase Axe, that desire will be satisfied and make us feel good.

In my experience, rarely does purchasing the right body spray suddenly turn a man into a ladies magnet. And so, the desire unfulfilled latches onto another product (thanks to a friendly nudge from another well-intentioned advertisement).

It's not just sexual suggestion. There's an entire category of mischief, in which the object that creates desire has little or even nothing to do with the actual consumption experience.

You finally buy your vacation home, predicting quite moments by the lake… but end up spending all of your time swatting mosquitoes.

You splurge on a trip to Disneyland, predicting many family bonding moments… but end up spending most of your time in line, sweating and increasingly anger prone.

Without actually living the experience, it's often difficult to make an accurate prediction.

Don't get me wrong – I'm a big fan of Disneyland. But there's a quick, costless way to double-check, ahead of time, that you too, will enjoy the experience.

3. Your desire becomes foolish.

foolish desire
You smell a cheese pizza. Your desire shoots through the roof. You buy it, you eat it, and for a moment, you feel bliss.

This isn't an article about health or dieting, so whatever. I consider that example a success. You had desire, you acted on it, you felt good for it.

But all too often, desire has nothing to do with happiness.

The primitive part of your brain doesn't care about your happiness. To it, happiness is a means to an end, one of many tools it can use to motivate you to act in ways it thinks will help you survive and spread your genes.

Your primitive brain wants you to consume fatty, sugary food. Your motivation? Eating it makes you happy. That way, you go out of your way the next time you're shopping to buy even more fatty, sugary food.

It works something like this:

desire and happiness aligned

That's your desire and happiness systems in alignment – you desire those things which make you happy.

Sometimes, though, things go a bit wrong:

desire and happiness unnaligned

That's your desire system out of alignment with your happiness system – all desire and no happiness.

You'd hope that if something didn't satisfy you, you'd stop desiring it (any exes come to mind?). But you weren't made to handle the craziness of the modern world.

Among other things, as you become more attractive, you start comparing yourself to ever more beautiful standards (how many ‘ugly' friends do you have?). The good-looking are just a few percentage points happier than the ugly.4,5,6

That's okay with your primitive brain – the more attractive your partner, the more attractive your offspring. Win for your genes.

But I suspect the reason you purchased that dieting program is because you wanted to feel happier and more confident, not because you wanted more attractive children.

For you, happiness is the end, not a means.

So, the way to sidestep all of these problems?

Want to be happier? Check out 54 ways to increase happiness!

Ask those who have already made the purchase how it made them feel.

How was that restaurant? That vacation? That laptop? That movie?

I'm not suggesting you become a clone – obviously, we're all different.

On Yelp you can filter by type of cuisine. On Goodreads by literary subgenre. On IMDb by demographic. On Amazon, they've got recommendations based specifically on people similar to you.

When it comes to money, rather than thinking, “I'm different, but sometimes others are similar to me,” I suggest taking the opposite perspective.

“My consumer preferences are similar to others, but sometimes they're different.”

No. I'm not a communist. Well, if you're going to call me that, at least call me a happy Commi. I've found great success in adopting that mindset – fewer bad apples, more shining stars.

Some lawyers are happy with their career. Many are not. Thinking of going into law? I suggest investigating what makes those happy lawyers different and seeing if you too, are one of the exceptions.

It's not about justifying yourself to some invisible stoic judge. It's about getting the most for your time and money.

These websites aren't perfect – some reviews are fake, some are made by people radically different from you, sometimes the wisdom of the crowd is more the folly of the masses.

But give it a try. You might be surprised. There are lot of people in this world more similar to you than you might think – there's 7 billion of us, after all.

Two tips for getting more out of reviews.

Jinesh, a big user of review sites, had these tips to offer:”One of the big problems is placing too much emphasis on negative reviews that may be edge cases or not common for your use case. It's happened to me time and again where I've resisted buying something because of these reviews (for example, speakers that some reviews say aren't loud enough; yet, when I got them, they're perfectly loud).”

Takeaway: Try to find out why reviews are negative. If they're complaining about a feature you don't care about, you may want to ignore them.

“Online, you can't tell whether people are like you; hence, you tend to assume that every person who writes a review is like you. It's why social reviewing/social search is so important – when a friend recommends something, I can say “this person has a weird taste in food, I'm not sure I'll take her up on a restaurant recommendation”.”

Takeaway: Social reviews > stranger reviews.

Did I miss any good review sites? Have any more tips for getting more out of reviews? Please share!

This is part three of my eleven-part series on money and happiness. Check out the rest!Money Secret #1: Buy Many Small Pleasures
Money Secret #2: Anticipate As If You’re Going to Kiss Mila Kunis
Money Secret #3: The Stoic’s Guide To Buying Happiness
Money Secret #4: Delight Is in the Details


Money and Happiness References

1. Eaton, W. W., Anthony, J. C., Mandel, W., & Garrison, R. (1990). Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of occupational medicine.: official publication of the Industrial Medical Association, 32(11), 1079.
3. *enjoy was defined as having a 3.8 star or higher rating, the average yelp rating (on yelp's scale a 3 is ‘OK', a 4 is ‘Yay! I'm a fan.').
4. Holder, M. D., & Coleman, B. (2008). The contribution of temperament, popularity, and physical appearance to children’s happiness. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 279-302. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9052-7
5. Daniel S. Hamermesh & Jason Abrevaya, 2011. “”Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness”?,” NBER Working Papers 17327, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
6. World Happiness Report, 2012
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23 thoughts on “Money Secret #3: The Stoic’s Guide To Buying Happiness”

  1. Um, Amit? I take exception to the part about “We men get a surge of desire (or not, if we’re married).” As a married man, I assure you that primal reactions to good lookin’ ladies don’t fade. That’s the only thing I’ll take umbrage with. The rest was rockin’, dude!

    By the way, you might want to add Trip Advisor to your list of review sites for people who like to travel.

    P.S. The secret to not being dissatisfied with ex-girlfriends? Only have one. It works for me.

    • Joel! Such a romantic! But it’s too late for me, I’ve already got double digit exes… Still, you better get that primal urge under control – your wife can’t be too happy about that. Or maybe it’s that urge that keeps her happy 😉

      Ahem, Trip Advisor added – thanks for the tip!

  2. – Let the dog out
    – Pick up dry cleaning
    – Buy some Axe


    Seriously, though Amit – a great description of the good and bad tricks we can play on ourselves mentally. Being aware is the first step to being in control. Good stuff – and done as thoroughly as always, my friend!

    • Now, now, Gary, you seem to be a handsome enough man already. Add Axe to the picture and you might cause a global crisis.

      Being aware is the first step. Good point – many people think it’s the only step. If only it were that easy.

  3. Amit, I think I almost always check out the reviews before making a big (or not so big) purchase. It has saved me a lot of grief, for sure.

    Your statement that finding out what others have experienced can be a big predictor of happiness has some solid agreement … I was just reading about this same research (if only I could remember the name of the book!) and how the researchers determined that the experiences of others whose circumstances were more or less similar to yours was one of the best predictors of how you would react to something. Funny thing was, though, that most people in the research harbored the thought that they were different from this norm and that they would be different from the likely outcomes, even though they usually ended up reacting just as predicted. We humans must be more alike than we want to admit.

    Thank you for the resource links for the review sites … I’ll be using them.

    • Patti, you’re probably talking about the book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. It was one of the books that got me started on my current path, although it took a few months for its lessons to sink in.

      The idea that you can study what makes other people happy (and unhappy) and then apply that to your own life is one of the main foundations of HappierHuman. This time around, I decided to tone down the message and focus just on money.

      Undeniably there are differences between us, but I think we’re better off first trying to learn what makes us similar, and then focusing on the differences.

  4. Hey Amit,

    Wow, what an extensive post. I had to read this in two sittings just to get it all in. Great job.

    Your story of spending a $1000 on a training course reminds me of something that just happened to me recently. I went out to eat with my wife at a fancy restaurant and we both ordered pretty expensive meals. At first I was just going to order a burger and be done with it, but since we had just got some money as a gift we decided to spend it. The bad thing was the expensive meals weren’t good. Not really worth the money, but we tried to think back on them as if they were because of the money we spent. Eventually we had to concede that the money wasn’t worth it and that the burger would have been a better bet.


    • Nice Steve – accepting the loss can be tough. Also, can you ever go wrong with burgers?

      It took me a while to finally concede I had wasted $1,000. At first the emotional sting and resulting cognitive dissonance was so great that I would have even recommended the course to others. It took a few months for the sting to cool down – even knowing logically that my subconscious was playing tricks on me wasn’t enough.

  5. My partner would love to come home from work to a wife filled with wild desire. To be quite honest I wouldn’t mind being that wife either, I’m off to buy some axe.
    I prefer the taste of naturally healthy food. But every now and then I do get a craving for something rich or fatty. The problem is that once I’ve consumed it, it never tastes as good nor satisfies me in the way I expected. I then wonder, what was I thinking. Now I know, it’s that wild desire coming out again.
    My solution, stop looking for external things to feed my desire. If I desire more passion in my life I do things I’m passionate about, from the inside.

    • Let me know how the Axe works out for you 🙂

      That’s a really interesting situation you describe – I’ve yet to see cases of the desire and happiness systems unaligning when it comes to food. Whenever I or someone I know has a craving that we act on, the food always tastes good. Sometimes we regret, but always the food tastes good.

      I thought food cravings were born of food preferences. I guess that might be wrong – cravings for rich and fatty food may be universal, even when taste preferences have shifted away towards healthier things. Or is it that you’re trying to diet, and this is your bodies way of keeping your calorie intake nice an high?

      “If I desire more passion in my life I do things I’m passionate about.” Simple, but wise.

  6. Wow, Amit. Long post to get to the conclusion of “check out things you purchase before you buy them.” And Grumpy Me is not happy with the Axe ad showing “sexy” women with “perfect” (read: fake boobs) bodies as though that image is the goal which all women must attain. Sigh.

    But un-Grumpy Me says good job, Amit!

    • I take it you disagree with the conclusion? Conditional on agreeing, it’s highly impactful – hundred(s) to thousands of dollars get spent each year on suboptimal purchases.

      That’s sad about the Axe ad. I didn’t know they were fake boobs 🙁

      • Ha ha, Amit! 🙂 Does it dampen your desire at all knowing they’re fake now? 😉

        No, I don’t disagree with the conclusion at all. It was just a long way to get there. But that’s vintage Amit!

  7. Hi Amit,

    Sorry you got burned on that training, I’ve had that happen on a smaller scale and it sucks!

    I can relate to that quirky thinking process where, once some part of me wants something, there’s a part of the brain that leaps into action to find any evidence, no matter how thin, to help justify following through on that desire.

    I often read online reviews before purchasing something too, and occasionally allow myself to be dissuaded from buying something as a result.

    Another thing that helps is to just give myself some time and space between feeling the desire and following through. Just allowing that space can let the the intensity of the desire dissipate a little, then I can make my decision in a less compulsive frame of mind.

    Great post, as usual!


    • Thanks Dave! After every mistake of that kind, I always think to myself – that’s the last time I’m going to let that happen. But somehow it never is…. 🙂

      That’s a great idea! I’m going to have to experiment with that… I’m thinking I’ll put in a time delay dependent on the size of the purchase. How much time do you usually give yourself?

      • I give myself as much time as I can. If it’s some item in a shop I’ll often say to myself “I’ll get it next time” and if I can afford it and feel ok about it next time, then I’ll get it. With an online purchase, like training or something like that I’ll wait till the last possible minute.

        The most important thing in both cases is that I’m checking in with myself. I do some writing (you know my noticing thing) about what feelings are coming up and check them out. If I notice that it’s just a bunch of compulsive energy then I know not to buy.

        Of course, sometimes I just jump in like a fool and kick myself later. It’s a process 🙂

        • Thanks for sharing, that was informative! I never thought to check what emotions in particular were driving the desire to make a purchase.

  8. Good article Amit. And i must congratulate you on taking the time and effort to reply to all the comments people have left … very commendable. you don’t need to reply to mine… i am late (as usual) i am sure you’ve moved onto your next report. i particularly loved the part on ” cognitive dissonance ” its an area i am extremely interested in …. i presume that this can account for people with different points of view on certain subjects being poles apart even though they are armed with the same information or knowledge. The mind can be extremely selective as to what it lets in… to re-enforce the views already held. now i have a name for it. thanks 🙂

    • Mark, your knowledge of lay psychology is impressive. Until I learned about cognitive dissonance, I considered those with views different than mine unfortunate, misinformed, stupid, or immoral. Then I learned that maybe it was me that was wrong.

      There’s nothing late- thanks for taking the time to drop by and leave a comment!

  9. Wow Amit – you should be writing a book on this subject. Very thorough and interesting. It was good food for thought and made me think of how I make decisions. As you mentioned often the desire does not equate with happiness. Since I am using a Dave Ramsey desk calendar with tips each day about making good financial decisions this post really fed into my plan for 2013. Great job.

    • Thanks Jane! That’s the plan – once I’m done with all 11 posts of the series, I’m going to compile them into a free eBook.

      A nice quote from a book I was just reading –
      “Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.”

      I find myself mostly agreeing.


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