The secret to happiness, it would appear, is to eschew rampant consumerism by paying for experiences over possessions. File picture: Debbie Yazbek

London - “I don’t care too much for money/ “Cause money can’t buy me love,” trilled The Beatles in what many consider the answer to one of life’s big questions: can money buy happiness?

Think again. Money can buy happiness. All you have to do is spend it wisely.

The thinking is laid out in an article by American psychologists that is already being tipped as a “big idea” of 2013.

The article, “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right”, is being adapted into a book, Happy Money, for publication next year.

Believing the best things in life are not for sale “is lovely, popular and almost certainly wrong”, the article states bluntly.

“Wealthy people don’t just have better toys,” it continues.

“They have better nutrition and better medical care, more free time and more meaningful labour – more of just about every ingredient in the recipe for a happy life.”

However, previous studies have shown that, despite these factors, the rich tend not to be much happier than the poor – something the psychologists appear keen to remedy.

The paper’s authors, Elizabeth W Dunn, Daniel T Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, set out eight core principles for spending yourself into lasting happiness.

The secret, it would appear, is to eschew rampant consumerism by paying for experiences over possessions, helping others instead of yourself, and delaying gratification.

Even better news for would-be philanthropists: giving to charity brings opportunities for “positive self-presentation”.

“Money can buy most, if not all of the things that make people happy,” the authors write – “and if it doesn’t the fault is ours.”

The eight principles of pleasure they put forward are:

1. Buy experiences instead of things

Because humans adapt quickly to new conditions, the psychologists say, the pleasure derived from a new possession has a short lifespan. But experiences can be enjoyable in the moment, and leave memories that are a source of happiness for a long time.

“After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor for a new [home],” the authors write, “home buyers find their once-beloved floors quickly become nothing more than unnoticed ground beneath their feet. In contrast, a memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight.”

2. Help others instead of yourself

Pointing out that “human beings are the most social animals on the planet”, psychologists cite numerous studies show that people who do more “pro-social spending”, such as buying gifts and donating to charity, tend to be happier.

Does being selfless provide the key to happiness? Well, no.

“Spending money on a friend or romantic partner… provides an opportunity for positive self-presentation, which has been shown to produce benefits for mood.

“Giving to charity may facilitate the development of such positive self-presentation as well.”

In other words, give money, but make sure people know about it.

3. Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones

“Happiness,” the psychologists claim, “is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive affective experiences.”

We are therefore advised to spend our money on series of little treats – a fancy meal, a weekend break, tickets to a concert – rather than blowing it all on a sports car and plasma screen.

4. Buy less insurance

While mankind’s insatiable adaptability means he gets easily bored of new toys, it does have the benefit that he copes well when things go wrong.

Therefore, the psychologists claim, spending obscene sums on extended warranties and insurance policies can be a waste of money.

We should instead rely on our innate, primal coping strategies when something conks out.

“Consumers often buy with future regret in mind,” the article’s authors write. “Little do they know that their brains have already come equipped with an unhappiness-reducing mechanism that they can use for free.”

5. Pay now and consume later

Delayed gratification is a source of “free happiness” that not only ensures our new purchases give us pleasure for longer, but also stops us from buying things on the spur of the moment that will end up making us unhappy, the psychologists say.

Anticipating the cork popping out of a vintage bottle of wine may be even more pleasurable than drinking it.

On top of that, if we dissociate ourselves from the idea that something, once bought, must be used or consumed immediately, we are apparently less likely to, say, buy a takeaway to sate a fleeting desire for stodge – thus avoiding the unhappy aftermath of our impulsiveness.

We will instead be programmed to expect gratification of our urges further down the line.

6. Think about what you’re not thinking about

One of the psychologists’ less intuitive offerings involves thinking about the negatives in order to be happy.

Their theory is that if we think about new purchases – be they a television, car or holiday – within the context of mundane reality, we may realise that they are not the route to happiness they may have seemed.

The psychologists cite a study of Canadians, a majority of whom “dream of owning a vacation home, preferably by a lake” and listing “peace and quiet, access to fishing and boating, and sunset vistas” as part of the appeal.

However, if they were to think of the potential problems – “from the mosquitoes, to the late-night calls about a plumbing disaster”, they would be less inclined to spend on something that could lead to misery.

7. Beware of comparison shopping

Our brains our apparently hardwired to respond badly to comparison websites.

“Comparison shopping,” psychologists say, “may distract consumers from attributes of a product that will be important for their happiness, focusing their attention instead on attributes that distinguish the available options.”

In other words we are better off going with our instincts and seeking out the things that suit us.

If you think it looks pretty, it’s the one for you.

8. Follow the herd instead of your head

Humans, we are reminded, are social creatures.

Therefore the best way to know whether we are going to derive pleasure from something, is to see whether others have done the same.

The psychologists suggest that reading user ratings on websites is a sure-fire way to pick the best films, gadgets, cars and holidays.

Also, other people are good at judging our inner feelings about potential purchases “because they can see the non-verbal reactions that may escape our notice”. – The Independent

How has money worked for celebrities?

* Bill & Melinda Gates

Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1994, which became a lightning rod for philanthropists and which has made grants worth more than £15bn. The charity alleviates poverty and provides health care. Bill puts his happiness down to “getting to work on the things I want to” – and “a great family”.

* Dennis Tito

Does buying experiences, rather than things, make you happier? Dennis Tito – the world’s first space tourist – paid $20m for eight days in space back in 2001. Afterwards, he said: “It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive.”

* Donald Trump

With a net worth of more than £1.9bn and a tower in New York named after him, you might think that Donald Trump would have few things to grumble about. But barely a month goes by without the billionaire businessman denouncing the Obama administration on TV and predicting the downfall of the American way of life. Perhaps it’s something to do with his hair.

* MC Hammer

MC Hammer did not follow the third principle of happiness – to buy a lot of small things instead of a few large purchases.

The rapper spent a reported $20m on a 3 800m² house with Italian marble floors and solid-gold toilet. A few years later, he went bankrupt, and sold the lavish home for a fraction of its value.