How to be happier by consuming less

UBC psychologists explain how to reduce spending and emissions while increasing enjoyment.

UBC psychologists explain how to reduce spending and emissions while increasing enjoyment

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Excessive consumption — whether it's food, clothes or travel — has some obvious drawbacks. It's expensive, it creates a lot of personal clutter, and it's bad for the environment. To many, however, reducing consumption seems difficult and unpleasant, even if it's morally and financially advisable. A lot of us want to consume less, but aren't ready to sacrifice our happiness to do it.

Elizabeth Dunn and Jiaying Zhao, psychologists at the University of British Columbia, don't think we have to. Dunn is the author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending which explains how to get the most psychological well-being out of your buck. Zhao is in charge of UBC's Behavioural Sustainability Lab, and specializes in environmental behaviour. According to them, reduced consumption doesn't mean reduced enjoyment. If you give some thought to how you're reducing, it can actually increase your well-being. Here's how.

Delay gratification for more gratification

According to Zhao, "Anticipation is hedonic, and carbon free, so if you can prolong that and reduce the frequency of shopping or consuming, that's a win-win situation."

Dunn says that people get a huge amount of pleasure imagining the things they're going to enjoy before they even consume them. Therefore, she recommends building up anticipation as a source of pleasure. Dunn says whether you're planning to buy a holiday, a new toy, or a restaurant meal, you can "read reviews online, look at unboxing videos… get all that pleasure instead of the actual purchasing pleasure." 

"You may purchase it eventually, but you've already got a month of pleasure out of it before you buy it."

Anticipation can also be gifted. Dunn tells her seven-year-old what he's going to get for Christmas to give him a few extra weeks of excitement and joy before he opens and gets bored of his gifts.

Take a break from your treats

"The sad reality of the human experience," says Dunn, "is that pleasures decline. We get less enjoyment from the same things over time." This means that the things that start off as enjoyable treats can soon become costly and joyless habits. 

Dunn recommends taking a break from things that you started buying for pleasure but which no longer excite you. Taking a break both reduces consumption and restores our capacity for enjoyment. For Dunn, it was $8 kale smoothies which began as a delicious treat but became an expensive routine. "Even if you come back to it eventually, you'll have reduced consumption in the meantime, and you may realize you didn't need it, and when you do come back, you'll probably experience a bigger boost in happiness from that act of consumption as a function of taking a break." 

Reduce your choices to reduce your stress

In general, we tend to think that choice is good. However, says Dunn, "if you take a maximizing strategy to life, where every single choice has to be the best, you can get hung up on decisions that don't matter that much, like which pants to wear, which seems to be associated with lower levels of happiness." Reducing the number of choices you make everyday can help relieve stress and free up time and mental energy.

Zhao and Dunn suggest spending less time deciding what to wear. Picking outfits is a huge time-suck and is also associated with some of the most environmentally harmful forms of consumption. According to Zhao, fast fashion alone accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Zhao says humans waste $500 billion worth of perfectly wearable clothing every year. To start with, buy fewer clothes and to seek out more sustainable brands.

If you're ready to take this principle to the limit, Dunn says that there actually are advantages to trading in your entire wardrobe for a utilitarian daily uniform. One of her former colleagues wears the same khakis and white shirt every day. He never wastes time deciding what to wear, spends a lot less money on clothes, and saves time with laundry since none of his clothes have special washing instructions or need to be washed separately.

Cut down on boring travel to add to your 'time affluence'

According to Dunn, "time affluence"— the feeling that you have enough time to do things that matter to you — is about as strongly related to happiness as financial affluence. Therefore, anything that you can do to free up some time is going to benefit your happiness. If you can also reduce consumption, all the better.

One of the best ways to do both is to limit unnecessary travel. Air travel is a major source of atmospheric carbon. Zhao says that skipping one flight across Canada would save the same amount of carbon as giving up eating meat for one year for the average person.

But Zhao and Dunn aren't telling you to give up your holidays. Rather, they think that work-related travel is often unnecessary and can be avoided if you have a rationale for it. Where possible, Zhao arranges to present her research via video call. Not only does she save herself the time and stress involved in travel, but also gets a lot of praise from her colleagues for her environmental consciousness. "We're not taking a hard core austerity approach. Just pause before you accept invitations to travel and ask how valuable the trip will be to you," says Dunn.

Have a happier commute

Commuting is a double-whammy. Not only does driving to work release a lot of carbon, it's also usually a low point in the day mood-wise, says Dunn. However, there are ways of turning it around.

Research shows that people are happier while cycling than while taking any other modes of transportation, which is why Dunn bikes to work. This will probably not be true year-round but "even becoming a fair-weather biker and biking to work when the weather is good will make a difference."

Zhao drives to work, but picks up as many of her colleagues to campus as she can. This changes both sides of the consumption/happiness equation. Carpooling can save a lot of carbon emissions. "In your average North American city," says Zhao, "if you can drive two friends with you, the carbon is equivalent to taking a commuter rail or subway. If you take one friend, it's equivalent to taking the bus."

Driving together is also great from the happiness perspective, says Dunn. "Spending time with other people is associated with some of the most positive moods of the day, so carpooling changes an activity at the bottom of the happiness list (commuting) into one at the top of the list (spending time with others)."

Focus on purchases that change the way you spend your time

"What matters most for happiness is how we spend our time," says Dunn. Therefore, to predict the effect a purchase will have on your happiness, ask yourself: "How will this purchase affect how I spend my time on an average Tuesday?"

An expensive vase, no matter how beautiful, will probably not change how you spend your time. But buying a pet, like a dog, can have a huge impact: you can't stay too late at work anymore because you have to walk the dog, which gets you out into nature, and spending time with other people in the dog park. The downside, says Zhao, is that maintaining dogs is very carbon intensive.

By understanding the psychology of happiness, it might be easier to reject a lifestyle built around maximizing consumption, and reduce doing the right thing(s) to help safeguard the environment and improve your own well-being.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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