As vaccines get doled out and the risk of COVID-19 — at least in the US — begins to dwindle, many people are feeling something they have not experienced much of in over a year: joy.
Between a virus that’s killed over half a million Americans, widespread unemployment, a nationwide reckoning with white supremacy, a caustic presidential election, and a deadly coup attempt on the Capitol, joy could be a hard thing to find during the pandemic. Many people, stuck inside their homes but fortunate enough to have some money to spend, tried to shop their way out of gloom, buying things to try to alleviate the tedium, even if just for a moment, even if somewhere deep down they didn't even feel like shopping.
So how did money impact joy during the pandemic? BuzzFeed News asked readers and staff about the things they've bought during this dark time, and how it shaped their views on the age-old question: Can money actually buy happiness? We got responses from all around the US and other countries as well. For many people, the answer was a soft yes, even if it was insignificant and fleeting. As one person told me, “Money might not buy happiness, but it sure does buy the ability to ignore all of the things that might make people depressed.” Their submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
1. A replica of the “Mona Lisa”
“I bought a framed ‘Mona Lisa’ replica back from a family member. I originally bought it for £15 in 2013 and then gave it to them when I moved to London. With minimal human interaction during the pandemic, Mona’s been great company in my apartment despite her eyes constantly following me around the room.
“I’m still not convinced that money can buy absolute happiness, but being sat next to the ‘Mona Lisa,’ I can say I'm pretty content right now." —James Frewin in the UK
“We decided to do our own composting. Yes, I’m getting enjoyment watching worms eat our garbage and then turn it into a new gardening resource. The pandemic has reminded me how to enjoy the simple things and that it doesn’t take a lot of money to find happiness once your basic needs are met.” —Janie Berry in San Mateo, California
3. A Peloton
“The Peloton is a vehicle for me to make my own joy. It’s a type of exercise that is not too intense on my joints but gets me sweaty and stronger, and that makes me feel happy and present in my body.
“I have a secure job, extreme privilege, some savings, and have been deeply blessed to have made it through this pandemic so far in a relatively safe manner. That, more than the Peloton, more than anything material I could buy, does make me happy. Money, in my mind, cannot buy happiness, but it can buy a level of safety and security, which can create a level of calm — though I try to ungrip from seeing that as the only way to be calm or happy. That’s capitalism’s fault and/or purpose.” —Addy Baird, BuzzFeed News staff
4. A black light
“I bought a fucking black light. I don’t remember off-hand who makes it. It's just some shit I got from Amazon. Honestly, I was probably kind of drunk. (“Kind of.” Lol.) But there was this quote that was going around last year (I saw several versions of it being tweeted and it was also in a New York Times interview, but I don’t know where it originated) that the pandemic was a black light that revealed all these unseen things about America. Also, black lights are just kind of dope. I had an idea I might do something with it for Halloween, or, you know, at least impress my kids. I don’t think they’ve ever seen a black light. But then when it showed up, I just felt really dumb. I was too embarrassed to say anything about it to my family. So I stuck it up in the top of my closet, meaning to return it. Of course, that just made me forget about it until it was too late. So it’s still up there, hidden away.
“I did make some solid purchases last year. After all the schools and playgrounds shut down, I bought some 4x4s and plywood and built my kids a fort in our tiny little backyard. It’s fucking rad. But mostly, when I tried to use commerce as some sort of balm to cure the pain of being frightened and lonely and depressed, I just wasted my money. What I really wanted was more human contact. Instead I have a black light.” —Mat Honan, BuzzFeed News staff
5. A blue sequined blazer
“I’ve been mostly staying home alone, especially since the fall/winter surge started, and as such I’ve been wearing a lot of T-shirts, flannel, and ratty jeans. I keep the blazer out in my home to serve as a symbol of the things I look forward to doing soon: going to a restaurant, seeing friends and family, etc. It remains to be seen if I ever actually wear it out of the house, but it’s lifted my spirits just having it around.” —Dan Wolfe in Philadelphia
6. A build-your-own hurdy-gurdy kit
“I bought a ‘build your own hurdy-gurdy’ kit that I saw advertised on Instagram. It was $90 and I livestreamed myself building it on Twitch. It took about five hours, and those five hours were some of the most peaceful I felt all last year. The hurdy-gurdy is very beautiful and I look at it every day. It sounds like shit, though.” —Whitney Reynolds in Brooklyn
7. A Dutch oven
“I felt like the pandemic and lockdown meant relinquishing control of everything: all the things I’d planned to see and do that year, all the lofty ambitions I had for a new job, all the space I thought I’d cover through travel. Instead, I was stuck in a new, smallish apartment with nothing but basics: a few cookbooks and a daily walk to the local grocery store to buy the staples. The Dutch oven in fact changed nothing, but it just allowed me to cook amazingly delicious food and feel like I could still be in charge of something good.
“You don't need to look beyond the amount of layoffs during the last awful year to know that if you can afford to buy a Dutch oven during the pandemic, you’re damn lucky.” —Astha Rajvanshi in New Delhi
8. A Dance Dance Revolution mat
“I bought a DDR mat because I used to be addicted to it in middle school and figured I could return to a simpler time, get a workout, and play a game all at once. It brought me great joy for a moment! But I used it literally one time, because I realized that while DDR is fun for me, it is not fun for my downstairs neighbors. It has been stuffed in a drawer ever since.
“The pandemic has really made it clear who of my friends is living paycheck to paycheck, and who has family money to fall back on. The people who moved to their parents’ second homes don’t seem to be any happier than people like me who didn’t have the privilege of leaving the city, which leads me to believe money cannot buy happiness.” —Maggie Schultz, BuzzFeed News staff
9. A purse shaped like a chicken
“It’s a purse that looks like a chicken and I love her so much. Money can buy stability which leads to a significant impact on happiness — I was definitely happier after each stimmy.” —Camryn Kessler in Hartford, Connecticut
10. A Kids’ Choice Awards blimp replica
“I recently ordered a Kids’ Choice Award blimp off Etsy for $50. I bought it because I know I will be so happy when I open the package and see it in its orange glory. The mere prospect has me laughing.
“I went from making less than $9,000 a year as a student working retail to making six figures at a very secure job as a lawyer. I would say I’m roughly 10,000,000 times less stressed about literally everything in my life. I have health insurance and I can afford to use it, I don’t have to put bills on credit cards, and I no longer get panic attacks thinking about how I’m going to afford groceries. I definitely think money can buy happiness in that it can buy security and peace of mind — and Kids’ Choice Awards.” —Emily Dowdle in Lincoln, Nebraska
11. Squirrel ladders
“Honestly, it’s going to have to be the squirrel ladders. Plural. Because it’s not a squirrel obstacle course with only one ladder. And the little fuckers are maddeningly uncooperative. But I now fully qualify as an urban-nature-nerd, and yes — it has given me a small measure of happiness.
“Money can buy you the illusion of safety. And in some cases safety. Which alleviates anxiety, which shouldn't be confused with happiness. Maybe we just get to set that happiness bar a little lower right now.” —Miranda Diakiw in Calgary, Alberta
12. An old computer
“I bought this old, used desktop PC for $80 on eBay. It’s the kind of enormous, heavy computer you might find behind the desk of the DMV in 2015 because it’s cheap as hell and easy to repair. During lockdown I was playing a lot of computer games with friends, and one of them told me he would give him his old GPU if I bought a gaming PC to go around it. I am very cheap so I put it in this bottom-of-the-shelf used clunker. In any case, I use it all the time, and it's kind of a POS, but it was fun to work on something dumb while my industry and the world were collapsing around me.
“I don't know if it influenced my thoughts on money and happiness, but I did feel a charge of terror with every eBay purchase I made. This was May and I had no idea if I was going to have a job in a month or two and imagined future-me kicking myself for buying this dumb PC while I struggle to pay rent. Spending as little as possible on it felt like a deal I was making with future-me.” —Scott Pham, BuzzFeed News staff
13. Soy Curls
“A trashbag–sized bulk order of Soy Curls, a shelf-stable dehydrated vegan protein that has the texture of chicken when cooked. It was a practical way to ensure I had protein when I was grocery shopping so infrequently. It felt abundant! And offered some feeling of (food) security in a chaotic time. Money can provide security and safety, which lay a foundation for happiness.” —Jaime Karpovich in Frenchtown, New Jersey
14. A Steve Kornacki mug
“A Steve Kornacki mug that says ‘Map Daddy.’ It brings me joy every morning when I sip my coffee. I think the pandemic has changed my perspective on not feeling guilty for spending money on yourself if it makes you feel good. #TreatYoSelf” —Victoria Park in New York
15. Gold snakeskin pants
“As promising news of the first vaccines started to come out, I bought metallic gold (vegan) snakeskin pants as a response to months of working in sweatpants. They were $200 and I had no idea where I would wear them. But I was so excited about the idea of people gathering in person again that I was undeterred by the ridiculousness of these pants. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can, occasionally, be used to buy silly pants.” —Melissa Nightingale in Toronto, Ontario
16. Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil
“I enjoy the hell out of these pencils, which I got for like $6. The lead does wear down faster than some other pencils, and they have subtly changed the design to a more gold finish in matte (versus the previous glossy yellow), and removed some of the nice detailing. But you can't beat the emphatic darkness of the lead, and just the pleasant friction of writing on paper with these things. They also have a good eraser.
“I don’t think that buying things can totally solve deep, underlying, non-material problems one might have, but there are at least two kinds of purchases I’ll always find real satisfaction in: the impulse decisive expenditure in an exhausting situation (the later flight, paying extra for a nice hotel that one night), and the minor delights, like these pencils.” —Katherine Miller, BuzzFeed News staff
17. Donations to charity
“I donated to some charities because I felt helpless. It brought a very temporary sense of meaning to my life.
“I can’t buy products, even consumable ones, without feeling guilty about my environmental impact and/or supporting greedy corporations. Felt this way before the pandemic, and seeing how much crap people started getting delivered to their homes during the pandemic only made this worse.” —Nikita Dawe in Toronto, Ontario
18. A horse box van
“I bought it because I wanted to take the horse I have rehabilitated out to competitions and rides through the woods. Of course just after it was built and delivered, everything shut down, so I can count the number of times my horse has actually been in it on one hand. But it’s ready and waiting when things begin to get going again!
“I worked two jobs throughout the pandemic, because horses always need looking after. I earned a good amount of money and because I wasn’t spending it on things like socializing and going out, I either saved it or spent it on my horses. And it makes me pretty dang happy when I can ride around the local village in a satin saddle pad and diamanté jodhpurs.” —Chloe Price in Ipswich, UK
19. A ton of romance novels
“I’ve bought 26 romance novels since Christmas (my desire to know what happens next on Bridgerton sparked this). Romance novels have proven to be addictive and a delightful emotional escape from the pandemic for me.
“Losing my job because I caught COVID-19 has made me realize the importance of money to giving you peace of mind.” —Whitney Louderback in Lone Tree, Colorado
20. A sled
“My best pandemic purchase was hands down a red plastic sled from Amazon that I ordered for $30. When a snowstorm hit NYC, I started a group chat, got friends to come out to Fort Greene Park and was like, ‘Tonight we RIDE, friends!’
“After a year of mostly staying inside being careful and months of cold weather, it was a cheap and incredibly fun adrenaline rush, as well as a safe way to see friends again.” —Rosalind Adams, BuzzFeed News staff
21. A manicure kit and dinosaur toys
“Nothing feels as good as having fresh nails you did yourself without any distraction because your kid is too busy playing with dinosaurs toys. So yeah, money can buy a small piece of happiness, it doesn’t have to be a yacht.” —Kellie Gleeson in Pennsylvania
22. A portable personal bathtub
“A portable personal bathtub so I could visit my friends’ backyard and drink froséritas with them while they sat in their socially distanced baby pool. It brought me the happiness equivalent to the heat of 10,000 Texas summers, and I would 100% buy it again. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you a portable personal bathtub. It’s up to you to assemble it, fill it with water of life, and make those happy memories.” —Lindsay McKenna in Austin
23. A sword
“I bought a multicolor sword, which came with two small daggers! On a purely aesthetic level, it’s gorgeous. It also makes me feel cool and interesting, and, on a few occasions, it even helped me feel safer in a new neighborhood!
“I’ve always loved buying things for people. I don’t have a lot of money, living on a grad student budget, but gifts are my love language and I love finding things people will love and sharing it with them. During the pandemic I noticed I’ve been doing a lot more ‘retail therapy’ and it occurred to me — this is self-love. I’m getting gifts for myself in the same way I buy for friends and family.” —Colleen Etman in Columbia, South Carolina
24. An orange KitchenAid mixer
“I bought a tangerine KitchenAid for $310. A bright orange machine that is the centerpiece of my kitchen. They’re pretty rare, and I had an eBay alert set up for months before I was able to snag one for a somewhat reasonable price. According to an Instagram story poll, it’s ‘a bit much.’ I love it.
“I got my first real adult salaried job during the pandemic. So I am very privileged to be decently employed. The best part of having money is being able to buy good and healthy food. But after a while, the only thing each payday means is that some digits in my checking account change.” —Jack McGrath in Charlotte
25. An original Andy Warhol photo
“My favorite thing I bought was an original Andy Warhol photograph he took of a model. Once I had the thought that (thankfully) my savings could afford me to buy one of his pieces and still remain financially above water, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for like two weeks. Contacted an art dealer and communicated with him for a week before sealing the deal. Big picture it was a fairly impulsive decision, because I also was going through some personal drama, but I can guarantee it is something I will never regret buying.
“The pandemic, most unfortunately, has affirmed my viewpoint that while money can’t buy true and lasting happiness, it most certainly can still create moments of joy and it can ease a lot of suffering.” —Alex W. in Clinton Township, Michigan
26. Fish slippers
“I bought these realistic rubber fish slippers on Amazon. They do make me happy — they are funny to look at and they make an obnoxious slapping sound every time I walk across the floor. They are actually also surprisingly comfortable.
“I’m not sure if money can buy you happiness, but it can buy you blissful unawareness. I am a university student and a grocery store worker. I have not seen my friends since last year when we all decided to scramble home. I live in a university town that generally attracts privileged kids. Watching them go back and forth from their hometown with ease, watching influencers and affluent people travel to warm places during the winter, watching poorer communities and public retirement homes suffer in a way that affluent communities do not, it is easy to tell that not everyone had the same pandemic. Money might not buy happiness, but it sure does buy the ability to ignore all of the things that might make people depressed.” —Jemma Taio Dooreleyers in Kingston, Ontario