In one classic Peanuts cartoon, the first three panels show Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally with a blank expression on her face, holding a balloon.  In the final panel, she wonders, “What’s so fun about a balloon?

What's fun, indeed?  Image:

What’s fun, indeed? Image:

I thought of Sally’s reaction when I read a recent piece in The Atlantic about the relationship between having stuff and being happy.  Psychologists have known for a while that people tend to be more happy spending their money on experiences rather than on things.  A recent extension of this line of research found that, among highly materialistic individuals, more happiness is produced by thinking about a purchase beforehand than by actually owning the desired object.  Marsha Richens, the researcher who conducted the study, reported that “Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts to materialistic people, and because they tend to think about acquisition a lot, such thoughts have the potential to provide frequent mood boosts.”  The actual purchase also elevates mood, but not as much as anticipating it does.

I can think of several possible implications of this study.  For example, you don’t really have to go into debt for possessions to add to your happiness; window shopping with the idea that you might actually buy something should do the trick just as well.  Also, the rich person who can buy whatever they want is likely to get much less mileage out of a purchase than a person of modest means who has much more opportunity to anticipate the purchase while saving for it.  Also, I wonder whether the satisfaction that one gets from anticipating a purchase has to do with one’s sense of self.  For  materialists, possessions are important to their sense of who they are.  Anticipating a purchase of some new, neat thing isn’t just a matter of thinking about the object; it also entails thinking of being the sort of hip, successful person who owns new, neat things.  The inevitable disappointment comes with the realization that one is stuck with the same self as before, albeit a self now encumbered with more stuff.

As for Sally, it seems the best advice is for her to think as much as possible about how fun a balloon is going to be, but to put off actually getting one as long as possible.