4 incredibly simple things happiness scientists say you should do instead of buying things

They are all very obvious, so why don’t we do them—instead of standing in line for Black Friday deals?

4 incredibly simple things happiness scientists say you should do instead of buying things
[Photos: Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images, Cris Faga/NurPhoto/Getty Images]

More than 165 million Americans plan to shop over the holiday weekend from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. But have you considered . . . doing something else? Research suggests that you experiences—like hiking in a park or having a meal with friends—are ultimately more satisfying than possessions; if you happen to find something you like on Black Friday, whatever happiness that provides is likely to be more fleeting than having some type of memorable experience. If you’re buying someone a gift, you’d be better off spending money to create an experience with them.


“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University who studies the subject, previously told Fast Company. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while.” In studies, Gilovich has shown that experiences provide a longer-lasting benefit, despite the fact that objects stay in your possession.

“One of the biggest reasons that experiences lead to more enduring satisfaction than material goods is because of their social value—the fact that you’re spending time with other people, the fact that you’re engaging in social interaction, you’re talking to people about your experiences even after you’ve had them,” says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who worked with Gilovich as a doctoral student. It’s also easier to compare material possessions with other people and feel that you’ve come up short if you don’t have, say, the best technology. But you’re less likely to compare your road trip to your friend’s trip to the beach.

The researchers focused on comparing the impact of paid experiences, such as vacations or tickets to a play, to purchases of material possessions. But it’s likely that free experiences have similar advantages. Here are four experiences that multiple studies link to happiness.

[Photo: Alfred Schrock/Unsplash]

Just go to a park

One incredibly simple way to feel happier, multiple studies suggest, is to spend time in nature. In one study, people who went for a walk in a natural area felt more positive emotions and less anxiety than people who walked in an urban area; if you can’t make it to the wilderness, another study showed that spending time in a green urban area also helped. Even just sitting outside in nature has benefits. Studies of “forest bathing”—the Japanese practice of spending time in nature and noticing the sights, sounds, and smells—helps dramatically reduce stress. ”

A nature walk is associated with decreases in blood pressure and general physiological indicators of calmness and contentment,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center. Another recent study recommends how much time is most beneficial. Spending around two hours a week in nature, it turns out, makes people about 20% more likely to say they’re very satisfied with their lives than people who aren’t outside that much. Conveniently, several states, from Oregon to Minnesota, now make admission free to state parks on Black Friday.

[Photo: Kyle Nieber/Unsplash]

Go meet a friend

Being social is a reliable way to make yourself happier. One recent study found that that’s true even for introverts. In the study, when introverts acted like extroverts for a week, their moods improved. In another study, when people spent a month being more social—with three more social interactions a week than their usual—they also ended up happier. A decades-long Harvard study that has followed people throughout their lives also says that relationships are the key to happiness.

[Photo: Rachael Gorjestani/Unsplash]

Do something creative (don’t worry if you’re actually creative)

Spending time doing something creative—regardless of if you have any artistic talent—makes people happier and more energized. In a 2016 study from New Zealand that asked hundreds of people to fill out daily diaries about how they spend time and their moods, they were much more likely to report a sense of well-being after the days they engaged in some time of creative activity. (In some cases, making art or music might lead you into “flow,” or a state of absorbed focus that helps you temporarily lose track of time and other worries.)

[Photo: Curtis MacNewton/Unsplash]

Move around!

Even a small amount of exercise makes people happier. A recent review of multiple studies found that working out as little as once a week, or for only 10 minutes each day, makes people happier than others who don’t exercise. Those who exercise more are even happier (though note that there are diminishing returns: taken to an extreme, it’s no longer helpful). Another recent study found that exercise can make people happier than money; after analyzing the behavior of 1.2 million people, the study found that people who regularly exercised were as happy as if they made $25,000 more.

Exercising outside, unsurprisingly, is even better (see the example about going to a park). In a research project that asks people to report how happy they are throughout the day via text, outdoor exercise is one of the activities most linked to happiness. “Exercise is just incredibly beneficial to people’s likelihood of saying that they’re enjoying their time,” says Simon-Thomas. “It lasts a long time—there’s a boost that happens when you’re exercising, and it goes for hours after the exercise.”

Volunteering is another activity linked to happiness, Simon-Thomas says, as are mindfulness exercises like meditation. And if you do choose to shop, she argues that there are ways to enjoy it more—go with someone else rather than staring at Amazon on your own, and focus on buying presents. “Getting gifts for other people is tied to a greater boon to your well-being and sustained happiness than shopping for yourself,” she says.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."


Attend Innovation Festival keynotes with Robert Downey Jr. and Janelle Monáe for free. Claim your pass now.