Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

The Devil Wears Prada: Is That Why She Is so Unhappy?

Luxury consumption signals status and feels good. So what's the problem?

I really need some new clothes.
Have you ever seen “The Devil Wears Prada”? I can’t comment on the cinematic greatness of the film, but there is something fascinating in the experience of watching the movie. If you haven’t seen it, check out this movie clip, and I think you will get the jist of the storyline.

Here is why I find the movie psychologically interesting—the explicit plot of the movie is that the benefits that come with fame and luxury lead to a miserable life; however, this plot is carried out while you are watching fashion-savvy beautiful people traveling to luxurious places. So, behind the explicit message, you think “I really need some new clothes.” It is almost as if there is intentional conflict between the explicit and implicit messages of the movie.

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I think this is pretty common; however, it also exemplifies one of our pressing questions in consumer psychology: if a materialistic lifestyle has been universally condemned by psychologists who argue that it undermines the very things that make life worth living, and there are numerous examples of the negative consequences of the consumption treadmill, then why do we continue to pursue materialistic goals rather than goals that are more beneficial for our well-being? Fortunately, social scientists are trying to answer the same question.

Liselot Hudders and Mario Pandelaere, from the Ghent University, investigated the rewarding aspects of consuming luxury goods. The results indicated that luxury consumption has incredible hedonic benefits for all consumers (regardless of their level of materialism). Amazingly, all of us experience instant gratification from simply looking and touching luxurious products.

Other research has shown that, because we assume that more expensive products are better than less expensive ones, we tend to find luxury products more pleasurable regardless of their actual quality. For example, people experience more activation in a brain region related with pleasure when they are led to believe that they are drinking expensive wine (even when they are not).

However, does luxury consumption make people happy in the long run? Unlikely. It is more probable that luxury purchases result in short-lived positive emotions, but ultimately, have negative consequences in the future. The more energy we put in to material acquisition, the less time we have for things that are intrinsically rewarding such as developing meaningful interpersonal relationships and contributing to our community. 

There is one last concern: materialists assume that luxury signals status and success, and consequently, are more likely to judge their life satisfaction based on their ability to buy luxurious products. At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habits, happiness, and values. To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Materialistic Values Scale, our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

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

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