Study Shows Wanting Stuff Makes Us Happier Than Having Stuff

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Think about it. How many times have you been so excited about getting something -- planning for it, saving up for it, finally deciding to buy it, waiting for it to arrive in the mail -- only to be surprised at how fast the joy of actually having the new item wears off? Turns out, that is just part of our nature.

The Atlantic reports on a paper from the University of Missouri titled "Why Wanting Is Better than Having: Materialism, Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process" that explains the results of a fascinating study on happiness and buying stuff. Marsha Richins of the University of Missouri conducted three separate studies measuring consumers on their level of materialism and their emotional state before and after making a purchase.

Richins found that those people who tend to be more materialistic experience stronger positive emotions before purchasing items, no matter how far in the future that purchase might occur or the size of the purchase. It was simply the idea that their life would be better once they owned the item -- an idea that so many advertisers play off of with immense success.

But what usually happens after we buy something? We realize it's just a thing. And it doesn't make our lives all that different after all.

"But after the purchase was made, and the materialists inevitably adapted to life in possession of said coveted item, what followed was a 'hedonic decline,' in which their happy feelings dissipated," explains The Atlantic.

Basically, the study shows that we are happier thinking about owning things than actually owning things, and idea we have explored here on TreeHugger before. We have covered, of course, how consumerism does not make us happier but that living simply can, but we have also discussed something that could be used as an alternative to actually buying things -- to get the joy of consumerism without the resulting depression.

Last year TreeHugger's Chris Tackett wrote about how technology can allow us a chance to feel the sense of ownership without actually buying things. Websites that allow us to bookmark or pin items we desire give us the satisfaction of shopping and adding things to our own collection, yet we don't have to spend a penny. It's the excitement in the "hunting and gathering" of interesting, beautiful, or creative things that can give us the emotional boost, and having them in a place we can visit or share on social networks is enough to satisfy consumer cravings without the financial impact and post-purchase emotional let-down. Chris wrote:

[I]n some instances bookmarking is even replacing real-world consumption. Just as Megan Garber explained the endorphin hit we can get from adding a great story to our Instapaper queue, I have found that adding items to my Svpply page gives me a similarly pleasant rush of some pleasure-inducing chemicals. When I spot something online that I think has nice design, might be worth-buying later or would make a good gift, I'll happily click the Buy Later button in my browser to add it to my Svpply page. Once it is there, I am able to revisit the product later and decide if it is really something I want to buy. I have often removed something later that, in an earlier time, I may have actually bought, not realizing I didn't actually like the design as much as I had thought or simply that I didn't need it... My Svpply page has a bunch of aspirational products that I don't plan to ever actually buy, either because or price, practicality, or environmental impact, but that I find visually interesting enough to have added to my Svpply page simply so I can see them from time to time.

I used to do something similar years before websites like Pinterest were dreamed up. I had a "good ideas" notebook where I cut and pasted ideas from magazines -- crafts I wanted to do, recipes I wanted to cook, layouts for gardens I wanted to plant, decor items I wanted to make instead of buy, and so on. I actually did maybe 1% of the projects I found, but it was the gathering and saving of them, the possibility of seeing them through in the future, that was the real source of joy.

This recent study by Richins may not have told us much that we didn't already know about consumerism and happiness. But every reminder is ultimately helpful for rethinking a purchase and just how happy we will be with it, and that delayed gratification is in itself a wonderful experience.

Tags: Consumerism | Economics

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