Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Buying Happiness One Small Purchase at a Time

Inexpensive purchases may produce more happiness than expensive ones

Every summer I teach an extra summer school class. The major purpose is to save up some extra vacation money. Typically, my wife and I only use the money for "big" trip— for example, we have gone to Europe twice with this vacation money. 

However, every time I pay over $3000 for us just to fly to Europe, I think "wouldn't we be happier if we went to a few more baseball games, ate dinner at a few nicer restaurants, and went to a few more movies instead of spending all of our travel funds on one vacation?"

Think about it, if you had some extra money to spend, which do you think would make you happier: a series of small, inexpensive purchases or one large, expensive purchase?

While people are usually split fairly evenly on this question—for example, when I asked my Facebook friends exactly 50% picked both options—regularly spending money on small pleasures may increase happiness more than occasionally splurging on big-ticket purchases. However, people often misforecast the happiness they experience from purchases. So, BeyondThePurchase.org decided to examine whether people’s purchase preferences align with the recommendation to buy frequent, small experiences.

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A sample of participants was presented with a variety of commonly purchased experiences differing on: (a) type, (b) price, and (c) the people with whom they would share the experience.

Statistical analysis showed that when considering an inexpensive experience people’s main concern was with whom they would share the experience, but for more luxurious experiences people were most concerned with the money they spent and the type of experience they would have.

Because, in terms of happiness, the relationships people build through shared experiences are more important than the experience itself, we concluded that inexpensive purchases might make people happier because they encourage people to focus on relationships, rather than money or prestige (i.e., thriftier purchases may increase happiness by making relationships more salient to people than they are at a higher price point).

In sum, this study shows that, compared to a higher price point, at a lower price point, people pay more attention to what’s important—sharing the experience with others.

So for your next vacation, while it’s easy to be lured by the glamour of big-ticket purchases, this research suggests that taking in a few movies or nice meals with family and friends may end up being just as satisfying as a weeklong getaway to Paris.

So what do you prefer: frequent inexpensive purchases or infrequent expensive ones?

Help us find out what most people prefer 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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