Spending time in nature makes you nicer—and happier, too. ©John T. Andrews

Smiling sightseers in Uganda, Africa. Big grins on the faces of tourists to Costa Rica. An enthusiastically clapping audience for the whales off the Mexican Baja Peninsula. Come to think of it, have you ever seen a solemn or even remotely grumpy person in a travel photo? Marketing spin aside (after all, what tour company would show you a picture of people not having fun on a trip?), images of scowling vacationing folks are hard to find. And that’s the case whether the photos come from a glossy brochure or from your own camera.

I can vouch for this phenomenon from personal experience. Despite the fact that I’m terrified of heights (I have major trouble when I try to get to a seat above row six in the bleachers or any chair in an IMAX movie theater), my trip to the mountains of Patagonia was one of my top favorites. And I was scared stiff almost the whole time. Yet, you can’t deny that smile on my face in every one of my photos.

But beyond my own anecdotal evidence, now new research shows that spending money to have experiences rather than on purchasing material goods (or more “stuff”) makes you a happier person.

It takes a long time to absorb experiences. ©John T. Andrews

Time to absorb

According to a study published by Thomas DeLeire, associate professor of public affairs and population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Professor Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago in the June 2010 issue of International Review of Economics, only one spending category out of the nine tested was found to be related to happiness: leisure consumption. That means that spending money for an experience—such as going to a movie, getting face to face with a polar bear or walking along the Great Wall of China—produces a longer-lasting feeling of being happy than spending money on couches, cars or computers.

So why should spending our money on nonmaterial goods be so much more satisfying? Researchers in psychology think there may be at least three major reasons: 1) it could be that you feel less lonely and more related to others while having an experience, as opposed to just buying an item. It’s long been known that there is a strong correlation between the quality of a person’s relationships and his or her happiness; thus, anything that enhances social bonds has a good chance of making us feel good inside; 2) you create memories by having experiences, and memories are connected to deep, personal meanings. Possessions, on the other hand, are always separate from ourselves and not internalized; and 3) experiences can’t be mentally processed in one, big gulp. It takes more time—sometimes years—to absorb them and adapt to them than it does to get used to a brand-new sofa in the living room or to grow accustomed to watching TV on a new HD, 56-inch flat-screen. Thus, that happy sensation of being around something special lasts longer with an experience than it does with an object.

That’s entertainment

But I think there may be a fourth major reason why spending your money on leisure activities such as travel and getting outdoors makes you happier than spending it on goods. Since the time our ancestors first started gathering around campfires in the evening, we have been intrigued with stories and the tellers of them. And experiences make for much better tales and are far more entertaining and captivating than the state of owning things ever could be.

I’m terrified of heights, but I’m still smiling in Patagonia. ©Jane Schneider

Remember the hiking trip you went on, where it rained all day, every day, except for the last one, when the sun came out and revealed the greenest landscape you’d ever seen? Or the time you spent lying flat on your belly on the ice, eye-level with a harp seal pup? I bet you’ve narrated those kinds of stories over and over again, and they still make you smile with every reminiscence and retelling.

We already know that nature makes you nicer. Now we have proof that spending time nature-traveling can make you happier, too.

What travel experiences have you had that still make you happy every time you think of them? What was the best experience you ever purchased?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,