Three ways to “buy” happiness

buy happiness
Image by Jan Buchczik for Arthur Brooks

Thanks to one of my favourite deep readers and thinkers, Georgie Loxton, for sharing in her latest newsletter an article by Arthur Brooks called: “How to buy happiness”. Broadly, the piece talks about how money can only buy happiness to a certain level. (Oh, in an earlier piece by me here, I share a wonderful video animation by Dan Pink on the three things that he finds that motivate us (plot spoiler, they are Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy). So, back to the piece by Arthur Brooks, and what leapt out to me was when he said:

how the wealthier among us spend their money makes all the difference for their well-being. Specifically, spending money to have experiences, buying time, and giving money away to help others all reliably raise happiness. Thus, if you have a little excess income, it’s best to use it on those three things.

To add to Arthur’s thoughts in his article, here I’ll share my own thoughts on each of these three ways to buy happiness, I hope they are valuable to you and actionable for you.

Buying Experiences

  • A number of years ago, my brother and I, as well as my sons and I, all stopped buying gifts for each other for occasions like Birthdays and Christmas. Instead, we buy experiences. For example, in 2015 I turned 50, my oldest son 21, my second son 18. We folder that all up into a seven-day outdoor activity trip for our “18th/21st/50th”. No material gifts, yet priceless, timeless, everlasting memories. As Arthur notes in his article, buying experiences is about other people, about who you choose to have those experiences with.

Buying Time

  • I started adult life with what I could call a “student mindset”, always buying the cheapest option, always looking to save money. As I grew a little older and has some excess funds, I gradually chose to use some of it to buy time. This can doubly buy happiness when you buy time for tasks you don’t enjoy. For example, I really don’t enjoy managing my work diary, so I buy that time back via my awesome VA, Katie Tew. On the other hand (back when we could travel for business), unlike some of Katie’s clients, I love to research and book my own travel, so that is time I like to spend, buying that time back would cost me happiness.

Giving to others

  • What is life all about once we have enough to cover our basic needs? Over time most of us realise that what brings us joy is helping others, making a difference, creating tombstone legacies, not financial legacies. I spent most of my adult life living and working in my home of the Cayman Islands and yes, earning well and without any direct taxation. At one point a wake up call for me was realising that members of the single largest church in Cayman tithe 10% of their income to the church. I then looked at my own income and where it went and realised that, though I felt I was generous, I was not giving anywhere near 10% of my earnings in charitable donations. I looked long and hard at that and a) radically increase the amount of money I gave, and also b) started to give a lot more of my time to others in different ways.

In my own experience, each of these three are ways I “buy” happiness.

I find that awareness of the first two can bring quick wins from changes people can make. The third one is often more challenging, so to soften it I go back to the quote from the article, as this starts with when you have “a little excess income”.

My own mea culpa is that I spend quite some years keeping the vast majority of my income to myself to build for myself and my family. I’m happy I did, and at the same time, I started to switch that once a certain base was built. You will never see now me own a flashy car, a big and expensive house, I’d rather give money away, plus earn less so I have more time to give to others. I also moved to the UK and yes, pay income taxes. Do they always go to the right places? No, but I do feel happy paying to support others.

Off my soapbox now, and I do note that these choices are conscious and bring me more joy than having more money or things would. That’s me, others may be different, though I do encourage you to read the Arthur Brooks piece, it may subtly shift things for you.

As to shifting things, one thought for friends in Cayman with, well, a little excess income. Would you look differently at the idea of introducing income tax in Cayman if, instead of perhaps thinkig of it as “taking my money”, you flipped the thinking to tax being a way you are “buying happiness by giving to others”? ;)

Originally published at Tom McCallum.

Sounding Board for Leaders seeking to go from Good to Great to Elite to World Class. Daily posts here, or

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