Happiness research over the last decade has more or less concluded that we can in fact buy happiness, as long as it comes in the form of experience. The conclusion can be described thusly: spending money on things, no matter how elaborate, leaves us wanting more, while spending on experiences, especially with other people, yields long-term fulfillment. Good? Good.
Except maybe that conclusion isn’t quite good enough.
New research from researchers at San Francisco State University takes a wrecking ball to that neat dichotomy by suggesting that for many of us, spending money on experiences also leaves us wanting.
“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.”
The “extremely material buyers” Howell describes suffer a sort of fulfillment blindness about what purchases mesh well with their personalities and values. For these folks—and according to Howell they’re one in every three of us—buying experiences is really no more effective than buying things, because the experiences won’t accurately reflect who they are. In other words, no matter how they spend their money, they miss the mark of authentic “identify expression.”
Howell provides an example: “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. 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.”
Howell and his team surveyed consumers with questions designed to discover what factors limit the happiness they should feel (according to previous studies) from spending money on experiences. They found that the heaviest consumers of material things felt the least happiness from experiential purchases.
“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.
So what’s the solution? According to the researchers, it’s all about directing our purchasing power toward experiences that jibe with who we think we are. Spending on experiences that others say are universally edifying (i.e. museums and art galleries)–but that don’t really mesh with our identities–is likely to leave us feeling just as empty as spending money on possessions that lose their novelty minutes after we buy them.
“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.”
While I think this research adds a useful dimension to happiness studies, I’d like to know more about the effect of spending money on that which pushes the boundaries of our experience. Seems to me that someone who hasn’t traveled outside the U.S. could easily say, “I’m not a Europe sort of person,” but really have no idea what that statement means. Without taking a chance on new experiences, our “identity expression” might never expand beyond the comfortable, and limiting, life niches we carve out for ourselves.