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Happiness Stems From Purchasing Life Experiences—Not Material Items

Courtesy of Ryan Howell

Your spending habits affect your happiness, according to Ryan Howell, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, where he's also the director of the Personality and Well-Being Lab. Howell oversees, a website that offers tools and quizzes on how purchasing affects your quality of life. 

Interview highlights

Q. Before we start talking about purchasing experiences versus things and happiness, could you define your version of happiness?

A. I think if you think a little bit about the good life, you get a pretty good understanding of what we mean by happiness. I think often people have a tendency to think of it as this fleeting positive emotion that we only feel so often. But happiness is a lot more than that. It’s about having good relationships with your friends and family, strong connections at work, having purpose in your life. It’s a concept that we talk about as a eudaimonic well-being, but unfortunately that's not a term that's usually written about in the the New York Times. 

Q. The phrase that Howell just used is eudaimonic. It dates back to Aristotle, and it defines happiness as a blend of pleasure, prosperity, wisdom and virtue.  

A. I think happiness is really sort of all the things that make our life worth living. That’s the best definition we have of it.

Q. How do you think our wealth and how we spend it actually affects our happiness?

A. I think if you look at the most of the research out there, Maslow was onto something when he started talking about the hierarchy of needs. And by that, what we mean is that there's good evidence that when you’re in poverty, you’re likely going to be spending your money on physical needs and therefore your money buys you happiness. But Maslow also suggested that if there’s a deficiency in your psychological needs, then when you are spending your time and effort in reducing those deficiencies that will also make you happen. So most of what our research shows is that when people have more discretionary income, then they can make themselves happier by spending their time and their money on bringing themselves closer to their friends and family, by filling the need of competence, and they feel like they are sort of mastering something and ensuring they are expressing who they truly are. That’s one of the reasons why experiential purchases make you happier than purchasing material items.

Q. Are there people, though, that are really just happy with material goods? Are you saying all of us are just really happier with life experiences? 

A. No, that's interesting that you mention that...We just had a paper that was published in another journal that sort of addressed this question. About a third of people are so materialistic that they derive little to no enjoyment out of their life experiences. The problem is they also derive little or no enjoyment out their material items. That seemed counterintuitive to us in the beginning. We thought really materialistic people must like their material items, but they don't. The problem is this double-edged sword that they are dealing with. If they buy life experiences, what appears to be happening, is that they are buying life experiences to try to impress other people, therefore it's really inauthentic of who they are. Anytime you put your happiness into the hands of other people, what you find is that they sort of fail to deliver and you don't end up very happy. 

Q. Is it possible for us to change our buying behaviors in a way that leads to more happiness? 

A. I think what's exciting about our research is that if you look at numerous studies that have come in the last 20 or so years they focus on things that are very difficult to change, like our personality traits and our values. Once they are set, they are manifested in different ways. You mentioned the introvert who may not want to be as social as the extrovert. But what you find that the introvert probably isn't a person who is hermit, or someone who doesn't want to be around anyone. They probably are more likely to be with small groups. That's fine. You can still have very nice social activities with one other individual. Most of our research shows is that while your personalities and values are very difficult to change, your body behaviors are things that are easier to change—not easy—but easier to change. And you can experience well-being benefits from that.