Why Doing is Better Than Having

Bryan Caplan on Gilbert

“Money itself doesn't make you happy,” [Harvard psychology professor Daniel] Gilbert says. “What can make you happy is what you do with it. There's a lot of data that suggests experiences are better than durable goods.”

I'm baffled. Don't many durables provide a flow of experiences? A nice T.V. is the obvious example; a fine stereo system's another. My CD collection is my pride and joy – whenever I worry about being robbed over vacation, my first thought is the sorrow of seeing my CD shelves empty.
I don't share Arnold's methodological aversion to happiness research, but this sounds like a very hasty generalization.

Two points. (1) Market egalitarianism. Qualitiative differences between cheap and expensive consumer goods is almost nil. There is almost no experiential difference between a cheap TV and a “nice” TV. If Deadwood is good on a $2000 plasma screen on HBO, it's 98% as good on your sister's giveaway used 19″, a $35 DVD player, and Netflix. The extra expenditure buys almost nothing in terms of the quality of experience. Same with the music. For $4.95 a month, I can get I'm guessing 75% of of Bryan's CD collection on Yahoo. Capitalism makes money worth much less when it comes to manufactured non-positional goods. (2) Adaptation. The mind is a novelty whore — a change detector. Consciousness loses its grip on the added quality of a premium picture, sound system, etc., very fast. The cheap, almost perfect substitute for an expensive stereo is a cheap stereo. The cheap substitute for an exquisite meal at the best restaurant in Paris is… what? IHOP in Arlington? A great memory and a great story is an ongoing flow of positive experience. Gilbert is right.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center