Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Are They Set in Their (Happier) Ways?

Older adults spend their money in ways that increase their happiness.

By Kerry Cunningham and Ryan Howell

Older is wiser - and happier
Late-night advertisements often depict older adults as terminally bewildered. You see seniors failing miserably to make sense of their health care options, insurance plans, and retirement accounts. In these advertisements seniors are typically confused until another senior, usually a former celebrity, offers a simplified solution and peace of mind — all for a modest price paid in low monthly installments. 

But, are older adults (beyond 65) really so easily confused? Well, sort of...but not really.

Evidence suggests that older adults do review less information. Also, when experiments are set up so that choices can be ranked from best to worst, older adults are less likely than younger adults to pick the best option. So, that seems like a problem. But most spending decisions are not like that.

Most of our financial decisions involve making day-to-day life more pleasant (or not): like where and what to eat, what movies to see, and what clothes to wear. For these kinds of decisions, older adults do consider fewer options, and still make objectively suboptimal decisions; however, these decisions seem to work out for better, not for worse.

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If you ask adults about the last time they bought something with the intention of making themselves happier, you'll find that older people are more likely to report being happy with what they bought. There are two competing explanations for this.

The first hypothesis states that as we age, we actually get better at buying things that make us happy. After all, there is evidence that when we take a “life is too short” approach we worry less about impressing others and more about relating to others.  

An alternative hypothesis is that as we get older, we don’t actually get better at buying stuff, rather we are just more likely to enjoy whatever we buy. In other words, the glasses through which we see the world tend to get rosier as we age.

So which is it? Do older people make better choices? Or do they just make the best of what they've got? 

Help us find out by participating in our research at Beyond the Purchase. Just Login or Register and then take our Implicit Buying Motives Study. You might then try the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, which measures the extent to which the values of your family and friends influence your own behavior. Along the way, we think you’ll find out a bit more about why you buy and what makes you happy. Or, maybe you’ll just decide afterwards that you liked doing it.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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