Bryan Caplan  

Durable Experience

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From the WSJ, via Mankiw:

"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.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Yeah, these happiness researchers seem to have a problem with hasty generalizations. They do interesting work and then suddenly rush to conclusions that simply don't follow. It's weird, you can almost sense a sort of utilitarian mania.

Gary Carson writes:

Durables depreciate. As a durable ages it has an increased chance of a negative experience from a need to repair or replace. Memories of positive experiences may fade, but they don't become negative. The song will always provide a postive memory, but the if the CD gets broken the memory of the CD won't match the memory of the song.

Alcibiades writes:

utilitarian mania sounds fun...

Omer K writes:

A large part of life is economic.
Money would make people happy if the amount of money received was commensurate with the value of the work done.
Society interferes with this natural process.

What im trying to say is it is natural that money should be linked with status. This is massively reduced by a redistributist society.

Take an example of someone with an IQ of 80, without redistribution, he would work a long 8 hour (minimum) day with menial labour to make a living. Bottom of the status heap. Busy all the time. With distribution hes on social support, probably doesnt work and basically devotes his time to sleeping with the local women (yes, this is a stereotype, but stereotypes derive from reality aka its true for many).

The point is the ability and freedom to cavort with women is subsidized. In this way the rich higher IQ types reduce their own genetic reproductive fitness because it is almost by definition a relative thing. Money isnt just an absolute measure but applies to things like biological imperatives too.
Money would correlate more with happiness, which is in part a competition for the completion of biological imperatives within a libertarian society.

Forgive the rambling nature of this post, I do not see this topic broached much even though it is in essence economic in aspect. Taking relative and absolute economics, zero-sum games when considering limited fertility etc etc.

conchis writes:

I actually think you've picked the wrong beef with Gilbert here. The idea that (a flow of different) experiences have more hedonic impact than (a flow of the same) durables is a reasonably straightforward application of the theory of hedonic adaptation, even if Gilbert perhaps pushes it a little too far. I've found some support for this in my own research (as a lowly Doctoral student), and it fits with some of the work by van Boven that Tyler has linked to in the past.

The claim that I have more problem with is actually the one "that money itself doesn't make you happy". There's fMRI evidence that simply receiving cash triggers pleasure in the brain (see e.g. Knutson), and again, my own work using survey data tends to suggest that income and consumption have independent effects on life satisfaction. Just getting money does seem to make us happy.

Ivan writes:

You have a CD collection? Wow.

There are number of compression formats that allow you to rip full quality to a networked drive. Airtunes, a media-center pc, or something similar should be able to access that from anywhere.

I keep my storage in the basement. It is highly unlikly to be stolen, and the vast majority of my highly valued items are digital.

I'm curious if this dicussion is actually related. The more digital and virtual, the more experience matters. Playing croquet all last sunday with my family on a $30 set (purchased at a dollar store!), was worth far more than the last major durable good I got.

Robert Speirs writes:

As an example of a "durable" promoting happiness, arguably a vacation on which you take a good camera which you use to remember the trip in detail is more enjoyable than one without a camera.

Tom Anger writes:

Money itself can make one happy, in two ways. First, there are those for whom the accumulation of money is satisfying in itself. Second, there are those who accumulate money in the anticipation of buying something with it, and that anticipation makes them happy.

Q writes:

a sweet honeymoon. later you find your spouse cheated on you. will the memory of the sweet honeymoon hurt?

John Salmon writes:

I like the notion of "hedonic impact", as mentioned by conchis. Many's the time my friends and I have bemoaned the overall low level of hedonic impact our lives are achieving. And in a permissive culture, no less!

To my "point": Isn't it true that, virtually by definition, older people are less capable of certain types of, ahem, hedonic experiences? Thus, unless they are Hugh Hefner or they can find equally hedonic substitute experiences as they age, old people's "happiness" should be in steep decline as the years pass. This doesn't appear to be true.

The economics of geriatric sex, when this happiness-increasing option is (typically pharmacuetically) pursued, is a field much worth exploring. Some young whippersnapper PhD candidate will write his/her thesis on this subject and set the world on fire.

For example, what are the true costs of a week in Vegas, given that such a week may raise one's likelihood of divorce by, say, 5%? One would need to calculate the PV of future costs for divorce lawyers, lawyers for pre-nups, lawyers for future property settlements, and the like. And what of the career value of a young and fetching "trophy wife"?

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