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Mental & Emotional Health

Can Money Buy Happiness? Maybe, Maybe Not

Spending money on life experiences such as theater tickets or travel may not make materialistic shoppers any happier. Yet for these people, the purchase of high-end items fails to boost their mood as well. That is the conclusion of a study done at San Francisco State University and slated for publication in the June 2014 edition of the Journal of Research in Personality.

A release from the university notes that although previous research has shown that experiences create greater happiness for buyers, the current study suggests that certain material buyers — those who tend to purchase material goods — may be an exception to this rule.  

The release quotes co-author Ryan Howell as saying, "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. Extremely material buyers, who represent about a third of the overall population, are sort of stuck. They're not really happy with either purchase."

The researchers found that when material buyers purchase life experiences, they are no happier because the purchase is likely out of line with their personality 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 increase in happiness from experiential purchases. The researchers found that those who tend to spend money on material items reported no greater happiness as a result of 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 life experience that is in line with their personality.”