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More PsychNotes: Happiness and Well-being

Buying Happiness: It Can Be Done!
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

We often hear “You can't buy happiness.” However, a review of the research shows that it depends upon what you are buying (Van Boven, 2005). Purchases to provide an experience are different than items bought just to own. Adding an expensive artwork to a collection may provide temporary enjoyment but purchasing a bike for a weekly ride with friends creates ongoing pleasurable experiences.

Of course, what purchases provide experiences for one person may not be the same for another person. A fancy gas grill barely used may be materialistic but if it is used frequently for family gatherings it could be considered experiential. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the difference because materialistic people often try to justify purchases as experiential purchases when they are not. To determine whether your purchases are materialistic or experiential, consider the following:

1) Does the purchase create life experiences? Does it create memories, enjoyment, pleasure? Experiential purchases usually create ongoing enjoyment even if it is just the memory of the experience. Materialistic purchases are often pleasurable at the time of the purchase but provide little ongoing enjoyment.

2) Does the purchase lead to positive reinterpretation over time? Many experiences can be unpleasant or miserable at the time they are experienced but the memory and telling the story can be enjoyable. For instance, you purchase that bike for a week-long trip. It rains every day and you fall in the mud twisting your ankle. It may not have been great fun at the time but sharing the story with others later makes the memory of the trip more enjoyable.

3) Does the purchase involve comparing to others? Purchases for the purpose of experiences usually don't involve much comparing or competing with others. Whereas materialistic purchases often involve social comparison (i.e. “keeping up with the Jones”).

4) Does the purchase lead to more social interaction? Experiential purchases often involve sharing with others such as a vacation with friends. Materialistic purchases are often more solitary pursuits.

Purchases that contribute to happiness don't need to meet all these conditions. However, if you are making a purchase for pleasure, not need, consider whether it will truly contribute to happiness or just brief pleasure.

Van Boven, L. (2005). Experientialism, Materialism, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9, 132–142. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.132

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