Scientists Have Found Out Why We Think Shopping Makes Us Happy

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We keep throwing money on shopping sprees despite knowing that buying life experiences will make us happier.

It’s because we mistakenly believe the things we buy shopping are of better value, according to a study published today.

The study is one of the first to shed light on why people buy material things even though years of research has shown experiences provide greater happiness.

“People actually do know, and accurately predict, that life experiences will make them happier,” said San Francisco State Associate Professor of Psychology Ryan Howell, a co-author of the study.

“What they really underestimate is how much monetary value they will get out of a life experience. Even though they’re told experiences will make them happier and they know experiences will make them happier, they still perceive material items as being a better value.”

Part of the reason, Howell says, is that material items are a tangible reminder of what the item is worth. Life experiences produce only memories, which can be harder to put a price tag on.

“We naturally associate economic value with stuff. I bought this car, it’s worth $8,000,” he said. “We have a hard time estimating the economic value we would place on our memories.”

To conduct the study, Howell and lead author Paulina Pchelin, surveyed individuals both before and after making a purchase.

Prior to the purchase, people said they believed a life experience would make them happier but a material item would be better use of their money.

After the purchase, however, the same people reported that life experiences not only made them happier but were also the better value.

“There were just huge underestimates in how much value people expected to get from their purchase,” Howell said. “It’s almost like people feel they will get no economic value from their life experiences and therefore they feel this tension in spending money on them.”

Happiness is not some fleeting, positive emotion. There are lasting benefits.

“Companies want their employers to be happier because they are more productive,” Howell said.

“Doctors want their patients to be happier because they will be healthier. We should try to figure out how to help people maximize their happiness because of all the benefits that come from it.”

You can forecast your happiness from consumer items by taking part in a quiz at the website BeyondThePurchase.Org.

The study, The Hidden Cost of Value-seeking: People do not Accurately Forecast the Economic Benefits of Experiential Purchases, was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.