For lots of Americans, the new stimulus payments landing in bank accounts are a matter of survival. The money is going straight to pay back rent, settle overdue water bills, or make much needed investments in their businesses. These folks are maximizing their happiness by stopping the bill collectors from calling.
But for another lucky segment of the population, this latest cash from the government isn't earmarked for any essential. If that's you, how should you spend it?
One sensible option is to save it. The New York Times reports that analysts have estimated "as much as $170 billion from the latest round of stimulus payments could flow into the stock market." Another choice is to use your windfall to buy yourself some joy after a difficult year. If that sounds like you, author Laura Vanderkam has some advice for you.
Many little joys are greater than one big indulgence
When we come into cash, it's tempting to plunk it down on some big ticket purchase you've long been coveting. Your stimulus check could become a new TV or a down payment on a Peloton, but in a recent article for Forge, Vanderkam warns that research suggests the thrill of spending your windfall on one indulgence often wears off very quickly.
"Research on happiness has repeatedly found that we quickly get used to things," she explains. "Psychologists (and economists) call this tendency the 'hedonic treadmill' -- the idea that we're constantly chasing the pleasure of the newest thing ... And because we get used to things, it's hard to buy happiness by purchasing big-ticket items."
A better alternative, according to science, is to spread out your purchases and keep the joy coming. "In a 2010 paper surveying a number of experiments, researchers concluded: 'As long as money is limited by its failure to grow on trees, we may be better off devoting our finite financial resources to purchasing frequent doses of lovely things rather than infrequent doses of lovelier things,'" Vanderkam quotes.
She goes on to recommend readers use their spare cash to upgrade everyday experiences -- go ahead and buy that expensive shampoo you've been craving or purchase the artisanal coffee mug of your dreams so you can admire it every morning while you drink your coffee.
These upgrades may feel too minor to give you much happiness, but if you think that way, you're probably failing to account for just how often they'll provide a little jolt of joy. Springing for cut flowers regularly will make you smile every time you pass the vase. That fancy shampoo with the amazing smell turns every shower into a mini spa.
It is possible to take this principle too far, of course. If your bathroom is littered with beauty splurges, you're probably long past the point of savoring them. And if you're failing to meet your basic financial goals in terms of savings and paying down debt, definitely call up the florist and cancel that order.
But if you're in the enviable position of having a little extra to spend thanks to this latest stimulus (or for any other reason), don't look down your nose at the idea of indulging in multiple small pleasures. Science suggests these little doses of regular joy often add up to more happiness than one big splurge.