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Scientific Proof That Buying Things Can Actually Lead To Happiness (Sometimes)

Experiences don't always trump things: The happiest people spend money on items that are in sync with their personalities.

Scientific Proof That Buying Things Can Actually Lead To Happiness (Sometimes)
[Photo: Flickr user Scott Anderson]

Can money buy happiness? Psychologists and behavioral economists have been pondering this question for years. Or in other words, will a trip to the theater make someone happier than buying the latest gadget or vice versa?

Research over the last decade or so has sent out a resounding message: If you want to be happier, invest in experiences rather than things. In their groundbreaking work, psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich conducted a series of surveys and found that experiences made people happier than goods. Their findings were summarized in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Then in 2010, Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, showed why.

Gilovich's study found that when people buy things, they are more likely to suffer buyer's remorse. They also tend to compare their material assets with those of others. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to compare other people's experiences with your own.

Moreover, the excitement of buying something new wanes overtime. "We buy a pair of shoes. It’s great at first. But then we get used to them," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness. "We adapt. And then we want to buy another pair of shoes." Several other studies by researchers at San Francisco State University have also linked happiness with experiences.


There is no denying that new challenges, travels, and thrills can provide deep satisfaction and meaning to a person, but let’s not write "things" off completely. It turns out that they can make us happy, too. "Most people are spending a little bit too much on material possessions," says Michael Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. "But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all material goods that you buy don’t make you happy. Some things make us happier than others."

New studies have provided compelling evidence that there is real value in some kinds of material purchases. In a study that was published in Psychological Science in April, researchers found that people were happier if they spent on things that matched their personality. The researchers looked at bank transactions of more than 600 individuals, all of whom anonymously filled out a questionnaire about their personality type and life satisfaction. The happiest people in the study seemed to be ones who spent more on things or services that were in sync with their personality type. For example, an outgoing person would love to blow his cash at a pub, but a more introverted person is likely to be happier spending that kind of money on books.

Joe Gladstone, a co-author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, Cambridge, says that this work does not assume, like some of the studies that have compared experiences with material goods, that there is one rule to happiness. "I think it’s more likely that for some people experiences would make them especially happier and for some people, they wouldn’t," says Gladstone.

The findings certainly resonate with Bernardo Margulis, who runs a graphic design studio called "This Makes Me Happy" in Philadelphia. "I am not big on brands, but I have my eyes on an iPad pro, a new bike, and a smart watch," he says. Items such as a set of markers or a new pad of paper are sources of joy for him. "But I don't generally get a rush out of the purchasing experience, and I don't really care for clothes or stuff like that," adds Margulis.

Additionally, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that products that helped buyers create an experience—the so-called "experiential purchases"—were as good at providing happiness as life experiences. An object like a bicycle or a book can provide a lifetime of valuable experiences.

Even minimalists root for products that can buy experiences. "If things allow us to create, enhance our experiences, connect us with people, they can make us happy," says Anthony Ongaro, creator of intentional living blog, Break the Twitch. His top experiential purchases: camera gear, video equipment, and musical instruments. "They can create revenue, progress an artistic craft, or provide fulfillment beyond the thing itself," Ongaro says.

More compelling evidence in favor for material goods came in the form of a December 2015 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that things provide more long-lasting happiness than experiences. The researchers kept track of people’s happiness levels after they spent money on a material good (e.g., a speaker) or an experience (e.g., a vacation). What they found: the participants continued to feel frequent bouts of happiness over two weeks after purchasing a material good.

An experience produced an intense thrill while it lasted, but it diminished as time went by. "It really depends on what kind of happiness a particular person values," says Aaron Weidman, a co-author of the study and a Ph.D student at the University of British Columbia. "If you get tickets to the concert, or go to a nice restaurant, you really enjoy the experience, but happiness that you get ends after a short time. On the other hand, Weidman elaborates, if you buy a TV or a couch, it doesn’t give you one moment of thrill, "but over time it gives you more frequent moments of happiness."

Experiences may be more important for some people, but some individuals like to strike a balance between "doing" and "possessing." Josh Ayotte, an executive recruiter who just started his own firm, says he’s a "50-50 split" on experience vs. things. "I try to use my hard-earned money on things that will make me feel good," he says. When it comes to experiences, it’s playing golf and traveling, but he likes to reward himself with "a nice suit, a really nice pair of shoes, or an incredible bottle of wine" every now and then whenever he meets a goal.

An Asian getaway here, a fancy pair of loafers there. Maybe the happiness formula really does lie somewhere in between.


"Dinsa Sachan writes about psychology and neuroscience. Her writing has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Discover and Playboy.com, among others. You can check out her work on www.dinsasachan.com"

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