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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Manuel Hardy opens the door to his large camping trailer at his home in West Valley City, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011.
I often find myself reminding myself not to get distracted by the fantasy of how you are going use something

Out on the East side of Manuel Hardy's home in West Valley City sits a 33 foot long, 11 foot 3 inch tall, Keystone VR1 Travel Trailer camper. When he bought it new in 2006 the idea was to go camping more often — and to take his dad, who is in a wheelchair, along.

It was seldom used. Then the economy went south and Hardy, a general contractor and father of three girls, found his finances getting tighter. "We ended up using the trailer only once or maybe twice a year after we bought it," he said. "It costs so much just to get up to the mountains with it. You have to pay $300 to $400 in gas just to get there. Plus I don't have a truck to pull it."

The family's 2004 Dodge diesel truck was sold — another victim of the economy. This left the trailer immobile. "It just sits there," Hardy said. "It's a big paperweight."

An expensive paperweight, complete with monthly payments.

But the economy alone can't be blamed for all the motionless camper trailers and boats across the country. Families take a hit financially when they choose big-ticket items they seldom use. Author Gretchen Rubin would say people spend to bring more positive feelings into their lives, but miss the purchases that would not only save money, but bring more happiness.

Rubin is the best-selling author of "The Happiness Project," a chronicle of the year she test-drove various theories about how to be happier. On her popular blog, Happiness-Project.com, one of Rubin's "Secrets of Adulthood" is "What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE."

Campers fall under the "once in a while" category. Looking at Hardy's camper behemoth, Rubin said, "It is a great idea that we are going to all go camping together. But is it a realistic idea?"

Buying for imaginary life

Rubin thinks we are captivated by the bigger spectacles rather than the less flashy everyday events that make up our lives.

"I often find myself reminding myself not to get distracted by the fantasy of how you are going use something," Rubin said.

For example, a person might buy a large dining table in hopes of having more dinner parties, but will it happen? Does he or she have a history of giving dinner parties? "Or is it a fantasy of the kind of person you wish you are?" Rubin said. "Instead of the person you actually are?"

Sometimes the purchase really will make a difference. Other times it is a fantasy people buy. "It is very easy to get distracted by who you wish to be or who you think you ought to be," Rubin said. "You can choose to do (things), but you can't choose to like to do them."

And so dining room tables go unused. Expensive treadmills gather dust. Fancy shoes pile up in the back of the closet. Generations of spiders build webs on camper wheels. And the resources that could have gone to improving daily life are tied up in what stays unused.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and the author of "The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want."

She agrees with Rubin's maxim about everyday life versus once-in-a-while life.

"Ideally you want to spend your money on a lot of little things every day that make you happy," Lyubomirsky said. "You want to spend your money on experiences and personal growth fostering connections to other people, contributing to the community — these are all the kinds of things that maintain positive emotions over time rather than one big item."

But it is hard to know what those things might be. And Lyubomirsky isn't ready to condemn Hardy's trailer quite yet.

"This is the kind of thing that could have made (the Hardy family) happier," Lyubomirsky said. "Some material possessions are avenues into good experiences and positive emotions. If he had been able to use the camper frequently it could have been a recipe for happiness. That could have been really successful."

Predicting Joy

Hardy's camper, except for the payments it accrued, didn't become a part of his family's everyday life. A similar thing on a smaller scale happened to Lyubomirsky's husband, which shows how hard it is to predict what can make people happy.

"If you buy a guitar and learn the guitar and then you play it with friends whenever you can — the guitar is a material thing, but if you use it, it can give you a lot of happiness," Lyubomirsky said. "But my husband bought a guitar and it has just been sitting there in the closet for years."

Her husband did try. He took classes, but quit after a few due to back pain. That was six years ago.

The difficulty of predicting how large-scale purchases and their accompanying changes will affect happiness illustrates why it is safer (and less expensive) to make purchases that enhance the life people already have and know.

Unless, of course, you don't always like what you know. Christopher Peterson is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. "What you do every day matters, as long as it is the right thing," Peterson said. "You also have to step back and ask yourself if this is the thing you wanted to be doing every day. A lot of people, a lot of the time do a lot of things that are kind of stupid — fiddling around, surfing the Internet. There is no guarantee that if you do something a lot you will like it."

Idealized life fail

Change is difficult and has a lot stacked up against it. James A. Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the new book "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy," sees consumers as being too optimistic. "We think we are going to have all this time to do these things, but our lives are already filled up with both meaningful and meaningless pursuits," Roberts said.

He said American's are suffering from "time poverty," and that our expectations are too high.

"We have this idealized perception of what the perfect life is," Roberts said. "And it just turns out we don't have the time to do it, we don't have the resources to do it or we find out it isn't something we really enjoy doing."

Which brings us back to Rubin's observation from her Happiness Project blog: "What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE."

For the Hardys, what possibly could have increased happiness has become a financial drain. "We don't do much lately," he said. "Movies are all we can afford right now. If we didn't buy the trailer we could go places here and there and afford even going to hotels."

Test drive happiness

Roberts thinks the solution for many people would be to try renting for things like vacations — testing to see if the proposed life changes are viable. "It's almost like saying, 'Let's give it a trial run and give ourselves some flexibility,'" he said.

Roberts said there are huge things that happen in our lives that can make us happier — such as the birth of a baby or an advancement at work. But smaller things, like going to church or spending time with other people, make us happy on a regular basis.

"Our everyday life takes up most of our life. Why not buy the little luxuries or do the things that can make our everyday life more happy rather than focus on the episodic life events?" he said. "There are mountain top experiences, but we can fill up our day with little joys."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

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Practical purchases

1. Buy thin, all-cotton waffle weave bath towels instead of fluffy bath towels

"They dry you off very quickly," Flanagan said, "and require less drier electricity."

2. Use linen sheets, napkins and dishtowels

"They sound expensive but are really frugal because the textile lasts just about forever," Flanagan said.

3. A good knife and a cutting board

"If you don't have a good knife and a cutting board, you are not eating well," Flanagan said — meaning you are not eating fresh fruits and vegetables, otherwise you would go out and buy one out of frustration. She recommends Sanelli's Premana Professional line of knives and Epicurean's Richlite cutting boards.

4. Get rid of cleaning chemicals

"Just replace all that stuff with vinegar and baking soda," she said. "And use microfiber mops and cloths." This saves on paper products and chemicals.