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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Can Couples Use Money To Buy Happiness?

For our wedding anniversary this spring, my wife and I decided to visit a Virginia town about two hours from our home and attend two plays at its Elizabethan theater. The theater is somewhat well known in our area, but for whatever combination of reasons we never before managed to work its Shakespearean offerings into our own schedule of events.

Of course, anticipating the two-day trip was part of the joy of it all. No doubt, too, the trip was destined to stand the test of time by becoming a good memory. Alongside many other memories of larger and smaller experiences over the decades of our marriage, it would assume its place in the story of who we are as a couple. Then again, we just expected our trip to be fun.

That, then, is how we chose to spend money for our anniversary. Apparently, the authors of a brand new book titled “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” (Simon & Schuster) would say we made a good choice. Why? Because we chose to direct some money to an experience we would share. “Happy Money” was published only days ago, but its authors have been discussing it in various recent articles.

“Can money buy happiness? It depends how you spend it,” the authors plainly state in an article just published by Parade magazine explaining their research-based conclusions.

However, the authors — Elizabeth Dunn, a University of British Columbia psychology professor, and Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School marketing professor – have cautioned that using money to purchase material goods often fails “to deliver happiness.”

Dunn and Norton hold that if you want your money to nurture your happiness, there are a number of practices to consider:

— One of those practices is to spend money on other people rather than on personal wants.

— Another practice is to use money to cover the costs of experiences.

Money for Others, Experiences

Spending even just a little money “on someone else provides more happiness than using the cash to treat yourself,” Dunn and Norton wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

“People around the world, with both modest and comfortable incomes, reported being happier when they spent money on others” instead of on themselves, according to a University of British Columbia news release announcing “Happy Money.” The university quoted Norton, who said “the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature and be present in diverse cultural contexts.”

In addition, it is valuable for various reasons to spend money on experiences, Dunn and Norton point out. Experiences are likely to bring us “closer to other people.” Moreover, experiences often grow in value for us over time, and they are “more deeply connected” than material things “to our sense of self, making us who we are,” the authors’ Los Angeles Times article observed.

Experiences, they said in Parade, “are usually shared with others,” and when it comes to being happy, “nothing is more important than connecting with the people we love.”

What Dunn and Norton say about the reasons for using our money to buy experiences is similar in certain ways to what researchers in the marriage field have been recommending to couples. For the Denver-based authors of “Fighting for Your Marriage” (Jossey-Bass, 2010), it boils down to a matter of having some fun.

Having Fun

“We now know that the more that fun and friendship are a part of your lives together, the happier you will be in your marriage,” says the 2010 edition of “Fighting for Your Marriage,” a popular work by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg.

These researchers urge married couples to set aside some time – perhaps in the form of a “date” — to enjoy experiences they “would like to do together.” Such experiences, which need not be costly, will be more fun if a wife and husband “are both up for the activities” they choose, the authors comment.

They acknowledge that in the context of today’s “busy and harried” lifestyles, having fun may require couples “to switch gears.” Couples may need “to treat having fun as a skill to be practiced.” But planning a date with each other “is one way to make sure fun times happen,” they say.

A 2012 report titled “The Date Night Opportunity” from the National Marriage Project based at the University of Virginia similarly described how, for couples, the “initial excitement associated with getting to know a person, growing in intimacy and trying new things” may “disappear as the two people settle into a routine.”

The report called attention to “a growing body of research” indicating “that couples who engage in novel activities that are fun, active or otherwise arousing – from hiking to dancing to travel to card games – enjoy higher levels of relationship quality.”

However, the report advised, it is important that couples choose activities for their dates “that represent a balance of each partner’s interests, rather than tending to do things (novel or not) that are desired more by the same partner each time.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.