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3 Questions You Have to Ask Yourself Before Buying Anything

Money can buy happiness, if you follow this advice.

When you buy something new, do you feel happier? Is the feeling different if you purchase "things" or "experiences"?

Happiness researchers have studied the difference between buying material goods—earrings, a smartphone, a new car—and buying “life experiences"—dinner out, a trip to the theatre, a music class. The results: Multiple studies have suggested that most people do get a temporary happiness boost from material purchases, but that the happiness benefit quickly fades. By contrast, the joy of a new experience provides a greater happiness bonus and is more enduring.

So says an overwhelming amount of research.

But according to three recent studies that examined the buying habits of 675 people, about a third of these people were unhappy if they bought things and unhappy if they bought experiences. Even feeling closer to friends or relatives as a result of sharing a new experience did not boost their happiness quotient. No wonder the research study was titled, “Damned if They Do, Damned if They Don’t."

What kept this miserable minority from gaining happiness?

There are many reasons why someone might be chronically unhappy—depression, anxiety, and worries about the future, just to name a few. (I'd add “lack of savings” to that list. Maybe some of the survey participants would have been happier if they'd kept their money in savings or retirement accounts rather than spending it.*) But the researchers were able to pinpoint one factor that was particularly relevant to the issue of whether and when you can buy happiness.

Artem Furman/Shutterstock

The Key to Buying Happiness

Artem Furman/Shutterstock

The Key to Buying Happiness

The researchers discovered the dissatisfied group was made up of "material buyers"—people who actually preferred to buy possessions rather than experiences. So they didn't feel they were expressing their true personality when they bought experiences. But the happiness that comes from "things" has a short half-life. The result: A meager happiness boost from either type of purchase.

When it comes to making purchases, a key to happiness is identity expression: Does a particular purchase express your personality and values? If it does, you are likely to feel happier. In other words, to be happy, “know thyself.” Then act on that knowledge.

For some, this ancient wisdom is easier said than done. Jia Wei Zhang, lead author of the study, noted that some people might buy an experience in order to fit in with others rather than to express their identity. This could be a good decision if a sense of belonging is your immediate priority. But sometimes we are too quick to bow to social pressure, valuing our social ties—our we-dentity—above all else. Since we are social creatures who need each other, staying on good terms with friends and family is a valuable survival tool. But I-dentity, expressing your deeper and truer self, is also important for survival—your psychological survival.

3 Ways to Find Your Sense of Self

If you see yourself in this study, how can you begin to make purchases and other decisions that express your true self? Here are 3 quick suggestions:

  1. Before you make a purchase (or other decision), pause and ask yourself: Have decisions like this made me happy in the past?
  2. Then ask yourself: What kind of person am I now? What is really important to me? What would someone like me do in this situation?
  3. Finally, ask yourself: What kind of person do I want to become? What kind of decisions will make me happy in my future life?

Studies show that people who learn to identify with their "future self" will make decisions that are better for them, such as saving more for retirement or adopting healthy behaviors.

These three questions bring your past, present, and future selves together to help you get better at expressing your values and personality. Over time, you will have a stronger sense of who you are and who you want to become.

A friend of mine once said, “Happiness is being able to express who I am.” Her insight is borne out by this new research. For real "purchasing power," be true to you.

*Many readers agreed. They offered other excellent questions that could also be asked (in "Comments" below and the PT page on Facebook). They are: 1. Will I go into debt if I buy this? 2. Is there a better use for my money? 3. Do I need it or just want it? Thanks, readers, for pointing out the dangers of retail therapy! You won't feel happy about expressing your identity if you are bankrupt!

© Meg Selig, 2014

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more tidbits on happiness, good habits, willpower, and healthy mental habits, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like, "Why There's Pain in Happiness," and "Could Changing a Harmful Habit Make You Happier?"


"For some, money will not buy happiness: Neither life experiences nor material items make materialistic shoppers happier." Science Daily, 1 May 2014.

See research of James March on "identity decisions" in, “Would You Be Willing to Change If Your Identity Were at Stake?”

"Future self." Webber, R., "Reinvent Yourself." Psychology Today, May/June 2014, p. 60.