Want to Buy Happiness? Do Something.

February 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Money and Behavior, Spending

happinessPsychologists 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.  

Also, lots of us are unhappy about the state of our economic affairs and probably have less money to spend our way out of it.  We don’t want to remain miserable or fearful.  How should we use our limited funds to fix things?  

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.

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7 Responses to “Want to Buy Happiness? Do Something.”
  1. I have done a lot of research on this topic myself. From what I have found, people who tend to shop more than they can afford to are trying to fill a void. Whether that is too much extra time, boredom, or unhappiness. We have a dependent mother-in-law who is as sweet as pie but tends to have some depression issues. She does not have any money so we help her financially and it gets very frustrating when you see how much she shops for things she doesn’t need nor can afford. In her defense, I really don’t think she realizes what she’s doing. It is an uphill battle that I hope she will one day realize herself.

    The end result: She is unhappy with having to be financially dependent, yet her habits keep her in that vicious cycle.

  2. Rick Beagle says:


    Good post.
    -Rick Beagle

  3. Beth says:

    I dunno if I agree. We’ve bought some things that I enjoy every time I use them — a nice TV, a nice computer, a modest house I fell in love with. We could afford those things and I still get a lot of pleasure out of having them. I think the difference is, I didn’t buy them to fill some sort of void in my life.

  4. Beef: I have family members in that situation as well. One is slowly coming to the realization that the spending is not solving the underlying problem.

    Beth: Thanks for your comment. I’m no psychologist but I’m guessing that their response to your point is that there may be a difference between enjoyment and happiness, the latter being a more profound and permanent condition. And I agree that there are some purchases that do contribute to a feeling of contentment and happiness – we have a few of those things ourselves.

  5. K-money says:

    All my research on this topic has been in the nature of a case study on myself. The best money I ever spent was on a couple memorable vacations that live as shining beacons in my memories. The worst money I ever spent was of a bunch of “stuff” that I ended up sending to Goodwill because it took up space and made me feel unhappy.

    I have learned that buying stuff does not make me happy and it was when I was most unhappy that I spent the most money. I do buy things now but only with careful consideration of how the stuff will be good for my life and not to fill a void inside me.

  6. hella says:

    I think their finding are overly simplistic…and I am very much an experiential purchaser. I generally don’t covet other people’s things. On the other hand, I just got an email from travelzoo about a trip to the Galapagos Islands for under $2k, including airfare, that I would LOVE to be in a better position to take. Ever since I got the email my passport has been burning a hole in my pocket…[$2k for the Galapagos!!! So tempting to raid part of my emergency fund…but I digress.]

    However, can’t “stuff” be experiential? I love movies. Replacing my early 90’s 27inch TV with a bigger screen TV would certainly enhance my movie watching experience. I finally broke down and replaced my walkman with an ipod because it’s easier to walk the dogs with the ipod in my pocket rather than carrying a bulky walkman with me. Plus I can download books on tape (ok mp3) from my library rather than driving there (at least in the winter…in the summer I tend to walk) to pick them up. For someone who loves to cycle, a new bicycle that makes the ride more enjoyable would be experiential as much as it would be stuff. Similarly, a serious gamer’s computer would be experiential for them. I think they need to differentiate between the purchase of stuff for the sake of acquiring stuff, vs the purchasing stuff because I will enhance a type of experience.

  7. Gail says:

    Great post! While I’m admittedly far from being able to call myself a non-materialistic person, I do give myself credit for making thoughtful purchase decisions on consumer goods. This means only spending money on material things I truly desire and can afford without compromising my financial goals.

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