Purchasing Pleasure: How What You Buy Determines Your Mood

To be content, spend for shared experience, not social comparison.

Posted Jul 05, 2018

Why "Good Fortune" Is a Misnomer

Most people think they would be happier if they only had more money. Sure, some people have champagne and caviar dreams of high-end yachts and private cabanas. But most people want more money not to achieve extravagant goals, but practical ones. 

They do not want to buy expensive artwork or fly first class, they just want to make ends meet. From car payments to college tuition, most people desire financial stability. 

According to research, however, contrary to what you might expect, when it comes to money, more is not necessarily better. Comfort is often more enjoyable than excess.

Materialism Lowers Well-Being

We often view materialistic people negatively. Does materialism just have a bad rap, or is it actually bad for you? 

Nagpaul and Pang in “Materialism lowers well-being” (2017) found that materialism decreases well-being through creating an experience of loss of autonomy.[i]They explained this is because materialistic pursuits are extrinsic, in pursuit of social position, status, and identity. They note that pursuing a goal solely to achieve praise, reward, or approval, detracts from the ability to enjoy the pursuit and engage with the activity in question.

They also found in one of their studies that individuals exposed to luxury products experienced less of a sense of autonomy and a greater degree of negative affect compared to participants who were exposed to neutral pictures.  They suggested that experiencing materialistic thoughts caused them to make upward social comparisons, comparing themselves to others who have more possessions and higher status.  

Nagpaul and Pang also note that participants´ recognition that they could not afford the luxury products shown in the pictures might lead to a decreased sense of autonomy, and an increased sense of self-dissatisfaction, anxiety, and distress.

But what if you can afford luxury products?  Will materialism still make you unhappy?  Possibly, because there is always the temptation to compete.  From the car you drive, to the shoes you wear, to the zip code in which you reside, it is human nature to engage in social comparison.  

Is it possible then, to spend money in a way that will make you happy?  Research reveals that one way to purchase both products and pleasure is through sharing your wealth.

Buying for Shared Consumption, Not Social Comparison 

Aknin et al. (2018) note that although there is a correlation between income and well-being, most people overestimate the importance of money to achieving happiness.[ii]  They suggest that spending choices have a greater impact on well-being.

Like others have noted, Aknin et al. discuss how experiences provide more enjoyment and satisfaction than material purchases. And because they are less susceptible to comparison than material purchases, they are less likely to raise concerns over the issue of competence.  They give the example of comparing the digital camera you bought to the brands purchased by hour friends or other store alternatives, to sharing a two-week African safari with your closest friends.  

They also explain that there is more of a tendency to ruminate over material acquisitions, questioning whether we made the best choice, which decreases enjoyment over the purchase.  

Strategically Sharing Wealth: Purchasing Positive Affect Through Personality 

Although selfish spending can be unsatisfying, prosocial spending increases pleasure.  Yet before you buy someone an expensive gift card, consider that the value of your gift depends on whether you deliver something they will enjoy.  To a reserved, avid reader, 100$ worth of line-dancing lessons is worth less than a $10 gift receipt to a rare bookstore.  Consider personality before you purchase.  

Aknin et al. corroborate this practical knowledge, recognizing the ability of money to buy happiness when it is spent in a personality-congruent fashion.  They cite a study where highly extraverted or introverted participants were given vouchers to a bar or a bookstore.  Extraverted individuals derived greater happiness when they received and spent the voucher for a bar than for a bookstore, and introverted participants experienced the opposite.  

The authors suggest that the link between personality-matched consumption and positive affect is due to fulfilling psychological needs of competence and autonomy.  Personality-mismatched spending, on the other hand, decreased positive affect. 

Here is an even better idea.  Instead of buying a gift card for a friend to enjoy a consumable product, even one you know he or she will enjoy, why not join in the experience? Generosity is more enjoyable when it facilitates social connection.  So take a friend out for coffee instead of  simply buying a Starbucks card.  

The key to contentment seems to be spending to share, not to compare.  And remember that happiness is priceless.  


[i]Tania Nagpaul and Joyce S. Pang, ”Materialism lowers well-being: The mediating role of the need for autonomy—correlational and experimental evidence,” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 20, 2017, 11-21.

[ii]Lara B. Aknin, Dylan Wiwad, Katherine B. Hanniball, ”Buying well-being: Spending behavior and happiness,” Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 2018,1-12.