Can objects make us happy? For years, we’ve been told that if we want to be happier, then we should invest in experiences rather than things. But what about those go-to purchases of ours — maybe that cozy sweater, a pair of pearl earrings or fresh-cut flowers — that just make us feel good?
“Many of us have been conditioned to believe that true joy comes only from within and that the material things in our lives are incidental to our happiness,” Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, tells SheKnows. “But my research shows that the objects in our surroundings can have a surprisingly powerful influence on our emotional well-being. Take flowers, for example. Research shows that just being exposed to flowers can lift our mood and reduce anxiety, improve memory and even decrease the amount of pain medication used by patients in a hospital after surgery.”
Fetell Lee says manmade objects can have similar effects. For example, she says objects with round or symmetrical shapes are known to elicit positive emotions, while sharp, angular and asymmetrical ones are associated with tension and sadness.
“In fact, studies show that angular objects create activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, associated with fear and anxiety. Knowing this, it’s clear that objects can affect our happiness in deep ways, some that we aren’t even consciously aware of,” she says. “And if some things are a necessary part of life anyway, we might as well use them to enhance our joy and well-being, rather than detract from it.”
Objects can be personal & powerful
One of the reasons certain objects resonate so positively with us is due to the personal attachments they represent for us. Fetell Lee explains, “It has to do with the way it resonates with a unique aspect of our personality or a connection to a specific memory.”
Objects can be powerful conduits to memories, she adds, particularly when they have elements of scent or sound, senses that are closely wired to the parts of the brain associated with memory.
“Objects that have smells, especially smells that remind us of memories, are powerful because the parts of our brain that process smell are very closely connected to the parts of our brain that process emotion,” Dr. Miriam Liss, professor of psychology at the University of Mary of Washington and author of Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family, and Life, tells SheKnows. “Smell is involved in emotions because our olfactory [sense is] very closely tied to our limbic system — e.g., our amygdala and hippocampus — which processes emotion and memory.”
Liss believes objects make us most happy if they remind us of experiences that were positive or people that we love, like a memento that we got on a special trip or vacation, or an object from our childhood that reminds us of good times we had as children.
“So much of our well-being is tied up to feeling close and connected to others,” she says. “Objects that remind us of others or were given to us by others can make us happy if they bring up a sense of closeness.”
Another power objects hold that experiences might not is the power to conjure up pleasant feelings whether they’re linked to the past, present or future.
“One of the amazing things about the human brain is that we can feel joy across multiple timescales,” says Fetell Lee. “We can feel it in the present, of course, but we can also call it back up from the past, and we can anticipate it in the future as you do when you have tickets for an upcoming concert pinned above your desk or a new bathing suit purchased in advance of a trip.”
Objects have staying power
One thing objects do that experiences, like your rock climbing retreat, do not? They stick around.
While that’s been portrayed as a downside when it comes to objects since they can become run down and go out of style, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and scientific advisor for the app Joy, which helps individuals figure out which purchases are actually making them happier, tells SheKnows that on the flip side, “if you have something that gives you joy, and if it sticks around, then it should give you a lasting feeling of pleasure.”
Not only do objects have staying power in their link to the past, but the feelings they evoke are equally potent in the present. Dunn and her colleague looked into how people feel about their purchases moment to moment and found that while people do feel more pleasure from their experiences, material goods do provide a lot of joy too.
“They might not be as intense as experiences, but they do make us feel good,” she says. “Like, I bought a new pair of leather boots, and they make me feel awesome. I might not always talk about the boots, but in the moment, on a Friday night, when I wear them, I feel really good. And so that’s what we’re seeing with the unsung benefit of material goods.”
And lest we forget, there’s the superstitious power some objects evoke too.
“Another way that objects can make us happy is if we give the object a superstitious power,” says Liss. “If we think an object has a power — e.g., to help us win a game or to ward off something negative — it will be necessary to have that object around to feel secure, safe and confidant.” While these superstitious associations are based on illusory relationships, Liss says since we believe in them, they can be quite powerful.
However, finding joy in your objects remains tricky. “The next big challenge is finding more tailored recommendations that are more suited to what an individual actually drives joy from,” says Dunn, which is why she helped to create the Joy app. “By reading your own satisfaction with your purchases… you can get enough data on yourself so that you are able to see which things make you the most happy to buy.”
But if you’re looking to impress people, you might want to go with experiences over objects. For example, bragging rights for your latest trip to Mexico might hold more substance over your latest iPhone purchase. “Research shows that people are liked more when they talk about their experiential purchases rather than their material purchases,” says Dunn.
But Fetell Lee says it’s more important to remember that finding joy is our birthright, no matter where we might find it.
“If we recognize that it’s natural to find joy in our surroundings and that this joy is intrinsically connected to our well-being, then it becomes easier to embrace finding happiness within objects,” she says. “Rather than thinking of things as wasteful indulgences, we can think of them as tools for bringing out our best selves, cultivating productivity, connection and creativity.”