More on happiness and consumerism

by Jun 29, 2012Wellbeing0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
A new study from San Francisco State University and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies  [1] casts a very particular slant on being a consumer by showing that people gain much more of a sense of happiness from purchasing life experiences than from buying material possessions. What the study shows is that it is the motivation behind what we buy which has the biggest effect on our happiness levels. If we buy things because we hope it will impress others, raise our status or prove something then the benefits of the purchase will be far more minimal. When people buy things or experiences because this fits with their desires, interests and values then they feel more competent, autonomous, less lonely and more fulfilled. This fits with a swathe of other studies such as a recent one of over 50,000 adults in Norway[2]  which found that those who engaged in more cultural activities, such as going to the theatre or art galleries, had better health, more life-satisfaction and lower levels of depression and anxiety. Being interested in things broader than oneself, and not just material rewards, is very clearly good for us. People who spend their money on experiences, such as holidays or cultural activities, tend to have higher levels of wellbeing and are generally also more optimistic, outgoing and happy  than those who spend their money more on consumer goods[3].

A key concept in this is the difference between what psychologists call intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivation. We feel better when we do things because we care and are motivated by, for example, our core values or beliefs, or having better relationships or improving family or community life, all of which would count as intrinsic motivations. On the other hand those whose values lead them to seek for extrinsic motivations are those who want to impress others, who care about wealth, looks, fame and status primarily, all values that our culture increasingly places a high priority on but which the research shows does not link with happiness or wellbeing. This idea has been taken forward most profoundly by Tim Kasser [4] in huge international research studies in which he has shown that we are likely to be much more materialistic if we feel unhappy, anxious or distressed, and he and others have shown that being materialistic is in fact predictive of just about every kind of mental health problem [5]. Maybe even more worrying, such materialism comes hand in hand with being less moral, altruistic and prosocial. Once again the attitudes that most of us value and want to preserve, such as for empathy, kindness, cooperation,  are increasingly threatened it seems in neoliberal market societies in which materialism and individualism are so powerful, a point made most clearly by Sue Gerhardt in her 2nd book, The Selflish Society [6]


[1]        J. Zhang, R. Howell, and P. Caprariello, ‘Buying Life Experiences for the “Right” Reasons: A Validation of the Motivations for Experiential Buying Scale’, Journal of Happiness Studies, pp. 1–26, 2012.

[2]        K. Cuypers, S. Krokstad, T. Lingaas Holmen, M. Skjei Knudtsen, L. Olov Bygren, and J. Holmen, ‘Patterns of receptive and creative cultural activities and their association with perceived health, anxiety, depression and satisfaction with life among adults: the HUNT study, Norway’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, May 2011.

[3]        R. T. Howell, P. Pchelin, and R. Iyer, ‘The preference for experiences over possessions: Measurement and construct validation of the Experiential Buying Tendency Scale’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 57–71, 2012.

[4]        T. Kasser, The high price of materialism. The MIT Press, 2003.

[5]        P. Cohen and J. Cohen, Life values and adolescent mental health. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.

[6]        S. Gerhardt, The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead. London: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

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