Want to Buy Happiness? Do Something.
Psychologists are fascinated – and rightly so – with discovering what aspects of our lives are likely to bring us happiness. That fascination includes studying and measuring how spending money in different ways can influence our happiness both positively and negatively.
I think that we should pay attention to this research. Anytime we can understand our own behavior when it comes to spending, we improve the odds that we will spend our discretionary income in ways that are less wasteful. Considering all of the credit-partying we have been doing as a society over the past 10-15 years, maybe we all need a crash course in learning why we did it and how it failed us.
I came across a recent research article from PsyBlog that summarizes the recent research in the “happiness and money” category. The article is “How to Choose Between Experiential and Material Purchases.” This piece teaches us whether all of the stuff we bought – high-def TVs, vehicles, and over-priced designer clothes come to mind – bought us happiness compared to experiences we purchased, e.g., a meal out with friends or a vacation trip.
The PsyBlog article begins with a discussion of a 2008 report on why materialism causes unhappiness. According to this quote from the article, psychologists are pretty sure that people who buy a lot of things “because they want them” are – to put it bluntly – messed up in the head:
Materialism is a dirty word. It also gets a bad rap in psychology. Studies consistently show that people who agree with statements like “You will buy things just because you want them,” tend to be:
- Less satisfied with life,
- Less happy,
- More likely to be depressed,
- More likely to be paranoid,
- More likely to be narcissistic.
None of those characteristics and outcomes sound good to me. I can confidently add that all of the materialism by others has made me unhappy as well. Even though the government wants them to start spending again, we have the big spenders (and their corporate and government enablers) to thank for getting us in our current mess.
The 2008 article also reports that folks who spent their money on experiences fared much better in the happiness department compared to the stuff-buyers. The researchers suggest several reasons for this. First, our recollection of experiences improves over time. Not so for things (particularly when the warranty expires). Second, we are less likely to suffer from an unfavorable comparison in experiences than we are with stuff we buy. The guy next door may trump our car purchase with a newer SUV or faster sports car, but he can’t do that with what we do for fun. Third, many experiences carry a higher social value compared to things. I have to agree with that one. A vacation trip with the family vs. a closet-full of unworn clothes? I can still make that winning comparison – many years after the fact.
Returning to the 2009 PsyBlog article, the writer points out that the earlier research was incomplete because it failed to include purchases and experiences that turned out badly for the consumer. So another team of psychologists studied that as well. This is the summary of their findings:
[W]hen our experiential purchases go wrong we are likely to end up slightly less happy than if we had chosen a material purchase. But, as in previous research, when our purchases go well we are likely to end up significantly happier if we choose an experiential rather than a material purchase.
The explanation for this result seems to be it is easier to forget a lousy product than it is a bug-infested, rainy vacation at the beach. I should point out that this conclusion applies to those of us who are not inclined to be materialistic. For those spendaholics, the research found that their stuff-purchases, whether good or bad, still lose out on in the happiness department.
The PsyBlog author makes a final yet interesting point. The happiness and money researchers did not run any experiments that compared happiness levels with experiences that cost nothing, like a visit with friends or day at the park. Surely the fact that the experience was free would rank it near the top on the happiness scale compared to a $200 purse.
I learned a lot from reading these articles. It makes me feel good about some of the choices we have made with our spending. Our newest vehicle is ten-years old. My clothes are a joke compared to others around the office. But we have spent a lot of money over the years buying experiences for ourselves and our children. That made me happy then and continues to bring me happiness now.