Can money buy happiness? For some, the answer is no

May 1, 2014, San Francisco State University
money

Many shoppers, whether they buy material items or life experiences, are no happier following the purchase than they were before, according to a new study from San Francisco State University.

Although previous research has shown experiences create greater happiness for buyers, the study suggests that certain material buyers—those who tend to purchase material goods—may be an exception to this rule. The study is detailed in an article to be published in the June edition of the Journal of Research in Personality.

"Everyone has been told if you spend your money on life experiences, it will make you happier, but we found that isn't always the case," said Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at SF State and co-author of the study. "Extremely material buyers, who represent about a third of the overall population, are sort of stuck. They're not really happy with either purchase."

Researchers found that when material buyers purchase life experiences, they are no happier because the purchase is likely out of line with their and values. But if they spend on material items, they are not better off either, because others may criticize or look down upon their choices.

"I'm a baseball fan. If you tell me, 'Go spend money on a life experience,' and I buy tickets to a baseball game, that would be authentic to who I am, and it will probably make me happy," Howell said. "On the other hand, I'm not a big museum guy. If I bought tickets to an art museum, I would be spending money on a life experience that seems like it would be the right choice, but because it's not true to my personality, I'm not going to be any happier as a result."

Although the link between experiential purchases and happiness had been well demonstrated, Howell said few studies have examined the types of people who experience no benefits. To do so, he and his colleagues surveyed shoppers to find out if there were any factors that limited the happiness boost from experiential purchases. The researchers found that those who tend to spend money on material items reported no happiness boost from experiential purchases because those purchases did not give them an increased sense of "identity expression"—the belief that they bought something that reflected their personality.

"The results show it is not correct to say to everyone, 'If you spend money on life experiences you'll be happier,' because you need to take into account the values of the buyer," said Jia Wei Zhang, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who conducted the research with Howell while an undergraduate at SF State.

Reasons someone may buy a life experience that doesn't reflect his or her personality include a desire to fit in or spend time with others, according to Zhang. And researchers did find that material buyers feel closer to friends or family following an experiential purchase. That feeling of closeness, however, was not enough to counter the lack of identity expression and therefore provide the happiness boost.

"There are a lot of reasons someone might buy something," Howell said, "but if the reason is to maximize happiness, the best thing for that person to do is purchase a that is in line with their personality." He invites people to learn more about how their spending habits are affecting their and contribute to further research by visiting his website, BeyondThePurchase.org.

Explore further: Contrary to expectations, life experiences better use of money than material items

More information: "Damned if they do, damned if they don't: Material buyers are not happier from material or experiential consumption" by Jia Wei Zhang, Ryan Howell, Peter A. Caprariello and Darwin A. Guevarra www.sciencedirect.com/science/ … ii/S0092656614000257

Related Stories

Contrary to expectations, life experiences better use of money than material items

April 2, 2014
Despite knowing that buying life experiences will make them happier than buying material items, shoppers might continue to spend money on the latter because they mistakenly believe items are a better value, according to a ...

Buying life experiences to impress others removes happiness boost

June 18, 2012
Spending money on activities and events, such as concert tickets or exotic vacations, won't make you happier if you're doing it to impress others, according to findings published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Are you a happy shopper? Research website helps you find out

January 26, 2012
Psychologists have found that buying life experiences makes people happier than buying possessions, but who spends more of their spare cash on experiences? New findings published this week in the Journal of Positive Psychology ...

Recommended for you

Short-course treatment for combat-related PTSD offers expedited path to recovery

January 23, 2018
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating and standard treatment can take months, often leaving those affected unable to work or care for their families. But, a new study demonstrated that many ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet May 02, 2014
On the title question, the inverse question is far clearer "can money issues make you unhappy?". If the answer is yes, such as debt, being unable to buy medical assistance, being unable to repair the house etc, then money spent purchasing those things will bring happiness. Some studies have considered very long term results and find that in the long term people return to an average ~ not happy, not sad ~ state. But we should note that nothing in the long term has an effect that permanently changes happiness, the exception being the correcting of transient unhappiness just before potential happiness inducing state occurs. Debt is transient and so permanently happier state may occur. Depression due to having no life partner is also transient (from sometime after puberty through to finding a life partner) and so permanent happiness also appears to occur, even though one actually returns to a happiness typical of the 'pre-depression/lonely due to having no life partner' stage.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.