Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

How Do You Maximize Your Happiness?

Determine the most important features, then make your purchase.

I have a friend — let’s call him Max — who has some difficulty making a decision when he’s shopping for big ticket items (TVs, computers, cars, etc). Like many of us, Max scours the websites of the manufacturers, pours over the reviews on yelp, Consumer Reports, edmunds.com, etc. If the item he is considering is complex enough — as in a home theater system — Max may even create a little spreadsheet where he enters the relevant specs for each of the options he is considering so that he can easily compare them along the various data points. By the time Max makes a decision, he knows everything there is to know about the potential options.

So, one would think that when it comes to big-ticket items like flat screen TVs, cars and similar expensive items that the person who does the research prior to making a purchase would be more likely to make a good decision, right? Well, not necessarily. Those of us who do exhaustive research before deciding are known as maximizers. Through our lengthy investigations, we are trying to maximize the positive outcomes of our decisions. On the other hand, people who buy the first thing that seems to meet their minimal requirements are called satisficers. These people are likely to buy the first thing that suffices. And, as it turns out, maximizers are generally no better off than satisficers.

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Maximizers tend to make objectively better decisions. If shopping for a car, the maximizer is likely to end up with the car that is has better ratings overall on all the specifications that matter — gas mileage, reliability, leg room, etc. However, the satisficers tend to be, well, more satisfied with what they bought. A satisficer’s car may not be the best car ever made, but they like it and are happy with it.

As it happens, people who agonize over all the details prior to making a decision tend to continue agonizing even after they have make their choice. In other words, maximizers don’t really stop shopping right away after they have spent their money. However, by not entertaining numerous options to begin with, people who satisfice are less likely to dampen the enjoyment of their purchase by wondering about the options they did not select.

So, does this mean you should go out and buy big-ticket items without checking them out first? No. But, to maximize your own happiness, it is best to decide in advance what the one or two most important features are, compare the options on only those features. Then, make your purchase and forget about the rest.

For most items, the differences between them are going to make very little functional difference — the cars will all get you to work, the computers will allow you to compute, the washing machines will clean your clothes. If there are large discrepancies in price or quality, those should be easily understood and non-competitive items eliminated. Then, pick the one that feels best. You’ll be happier with the result.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org, we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values. To find out more about how your personality and values influence how you relate to money and spending, we encourage you to first Login or Registerwith Beyond The Purchase and then take our Sucker Rumination Scaleand the Tightwad/Spendthrift Scale. We think you may learn a lot about how you and why you spend your money the way you do.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Well-being Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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

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