Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

What Causes Materialism in America?

The geography of consumption.

The belief that material possessions improve individuals’ personal and social well-being permeates America. However, contrary to this belief, multiple studies show that materialists, compared to non-materialists, have lower social and personal well-being. Compulsive and impulsive spending, increased debt, decreased savings, depression, social anxiety, decreased subjective well-being, less psychological need satisfaction, and other undesirable outcomes have all been linked with materialistic values and materialistic purchasing behaviors.

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In light of these findings, many studies have tried to determine what causes these strong materialistic desires in America. In a recent paper, my colleagues and I examined the "geography of materialism." We found a connection between one's neighborhood socioeconomic status and materialism. 

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Consistent with past research that has demonstrated there are some negative influences of neighborhood characteristics on individual attitudes and behaviors, our results suggest that various local economic indicators of wealth (e.g., more financial development, higher median per-capita income) affect individuals’ materialistic values, impulsive buying tendency, and savings behavior. These signals of wealth conveyed by the local economy appeared to impact self-evaluations in a manner similar to when one is exposed to idealized advertising images. That is, individuals who were young, poor, and lived around wealth were most vulnerable to engaging in social comparison with idealized, wealthier individuals, and using their scant resources to accumulate possessions to, presumably, convey wealth they did not have.

The reason for the link may have to do with "relative deprivation," or the feeling that people are less well-off than those around them. In this case living in a strong local economy may change individual’s comparison standards and encourage individuals to socially compare with respect to their material belongings, style, and consumption patterns. We suggest that people who live in more affluent areas are vulnerable to this implicit social comparison--if you see other people spending a lot of money, you feed a need to live up to that standard. Because of this, you end up buying a lot of material items, typically on impulse, even though they don't actually make you happier.

Think about it—if someone is bombarded with images or reminders of wealth, such an abundance of investment banks nearby or neighbors driving luxury cars, they are likely to feel a need to spend money they may not have to project an image of wealth they don't actually possess.

So, what is the next step? We want to explore whether there are ways to counter a neighborhood's effect on an individual's materialistic values. This could be done simply by making more people aware of the correlation, or through interventions developed to make people feel more grateful for their status. 

That is why we developed BeyondThePurchase.Org; to help people make the connection between their spending habits – how do you spend your money and who do you spend it on – and their happiness. To learn about what might be influencing how you think about and spend your money, Register with Beyond the Purchase, then take a few of our spending habits quizzes:

How happy is your subconscious? Find out by taking our Implicit Happiness quiz.

How materialistic is your subconscious? Find out by taking our Implicit Materialism quiz.

Some people are gadget heads and some are foodies. Which do you spend your money on? Find out by taking our experiential buying quiz.

"Living in Wealthy Neighborhoods Increases Material Desires and Maladaptive Consumption" by Jia Wei Zhang, Ryan Howell, and Colleen Howell was published online on Feb. 7 in the Journal on Consumer Culture.

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

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