How The Right Type of Materialism Can Make You Happy

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All products were not created equal: some can even make you happy, new psychological research finds.

It’s often said that always hankering after more stuff is not good for your happiness.

People who are more materialist, research has found, are more likely to be dissatisfied with life, more depressed, more paranoid and more narcissistic.

The right way to spend your spare cash is on experiences: these beat possessions in terms of our happiness.

That’s because:

  • Experiences improve with time in the memory, whereas possessions just fade and decay.
  • Experiences are difficult to compare, whereas it’s easy to see that your phone is out of date.
  • Experiences tend to be more social, and being social makes us happy.

At least, that was the received wisdom in psychology until recently.

Experiential products

Now, though, a new study has shown that not all possessions are created equal.

There are purely material items, like a piece of jewellery, and there are purely experiential items like concert tickets.

But in between are ‘experiential products': things which ultimately help to facilitate experiences.

For example, a tennis racket enables you to experience tennis, books allow you to experience the author’s mind and interests, video games let you experience a virtual world and a guitar lets you experience music.

Researchers at San Francisco State University decided to test out how these three types of purchases affect people’s happiness (Guevarra & Howell, 2014).

To investigate, they asked people about various purchases they’d recently made and how happy these had made them.

The results were surprising.

As expected purely material purchases made people the least happy, but the experiential products made people just as happy as the pure experiences.

Ryan Howell, the study’s co-author, said:

“This is sort of good news for materialists.

“If your goal is to make yourself happier but you’re a person who likes stuff, then you should buy things that are going to engage your senses.

You’re going to be just as happy as if you buy a life experience, because in some sense this product is going to give you a life experience.”

Enriching ourselves

When they looked at the reason why experiential products were such powerful forces for happiness, it turned out that it was because they give or enable us to gain skills and knowledge.

In other words learning to play tennis, gaining knowledge from a book, even conquering a video game all provide us with a feeling of achievement.

On the other hand, experiences tended to make people happy because they were generally shared with others.

Howell continued:

“They are essentially two different routes to the same well-being.

If you’re not feeling very competent, the best way to alleviate that deprivation would be through the use of experiential products.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling lonely, you should buy life experiences and do things with others.”

Image credit: martinak15

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 29 July 2014

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Images: Creative Commons License