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The Truth About Money and Happiness

Americans are living more luxuriously than ever before, so why aren't we happier? Here's how to break out of the materialism cycle for better wellbeing.

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Sure enough, recent evidence suggests that being materialistic actually lowers wellbeing. One study found that people who identified themselves with expensive possessions experienced fewer positive moods3. Another study found that students at upper-tier colleges and universities who had a primary goal of making money were more likely to have lower life satisfaction and to suffer from a variety of mental disorders two decades later4.

Do you see the irony? The very thing we chase to make us happy tends to cause more harm than good! Furthermore, these study results suggest an unsettling characteristic of human beings: we are never satisfied.

COLUMN: Do You Impulse Shop? By Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D.

Take a moment and reflect on how you feel when you buy something new—the excitement of new jewelry or the thrill of adding an additional item to your wardrobe. Such purchases most likely gave you a boost in happiness, but how long did it last? I’m willing to bet not very long. We inevitably grow accustomed to our new possessions and return to our pre-purchase happiness level5. From here, we desire an even newer piece of jewelry or more fashionable clothing, just so we can experience that happiness boost again. This cycle repeats continuously as we acquire something new, grow used to it, and desire something else.

This might explain why the shoes that you once loved haven’t been worn in months! Buying new things is an expensive, uphill struggle to stay happy, and you should expect no long-term benefit from this endeavor.

The next time you treat yourself to an expensive dress, pay close attention to how you perceive the clothing of others. How long will it be until you spot a woman with an even better dress? In our culture, we are constantly reminded of the extravagant wealth of celebrities and other famous people; no matter what we acquire, someone else will always have more. Betting your happiness on material things may pay off temporarily, but it’s ultimately a guaranteed loss.

QUIZ: How Satisfied Are You With Life?

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1Pryor, J. H., Hurtado, S., Saenz, V. B., Lindholm, J. A., Korn, W. S., & Mahoney, K. M. (2006). The American Freshman – National Norms for Fall 2005. 2Diener, E., Horwitz, J., & Emmons, R. A. (1985). Happiness of the very wealthy. Social Indicators Research, 16, 263-274. 3Crawford Solberg, E., Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Lucas, R. E., & Oishi, S. (2002). Wanting, having, and satisfaction: Examining the role of desire discrepancies in satisfaction with income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 725-734. 4Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing on the dark side of the American dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14, 531-536. 5Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Hedonic adaptation to positive and negative experiences (pp. 200-224). In S. Folkman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping. New York: Oxford University Press. 6Crocker, J., & Gallo, L. (1985, August). The self-enhancing effect of downward comparison: Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Los Angeles, CA. 7Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13, 81-84. 8Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.

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