People Overestimate the Happiness New Purchases Will Bring01/25/13
FRIDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- They say money can't buy
happiness, and a new study suggests that's true for even the most
Instead, the study found, these folks seem to be happiest right
before they buy a coveted item. Once they have the purchase in
hand, their joy fades quickly.
The findings may not be all that surprising, experts say. But
the notion that you're a lot happier before a big buy than after --
particularly if you're on the more materialistic side -- had not
been "empirically tested" before, said Brent McFerran, an assistant
professor of marketing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,
who was not involved in the new research.
In real life, you might be able to think of times when you've
anticipated an important purchase, then felt let down after buying
it. But whether you learn from that, and stop putting so much stock
in "stuff" is another matter, McFerran said.
"With big purchases, we're not making them that often," McFerran said. So you might not remember that last car did not actually bring you lasting joy.
"Or," McFerran said, "you might think, just because that car didn't make me happy doesn't mean this flat-screen TV won't. For some of us, there's always this hope -- a belief in 'retail therapy.'"
But based on the new findings, recently reported online in the
Journal of Consumer Research, that therapy does not have
For the study, Marsha Richins, a professor of marketing at the
University of Missouri in Columbia, surveyed 329 undergraduates on
three separate occasions. In the first survey, the students were
asked about an important purchase they expected to make during that
semester; the later surveys asked them how they felt after the
Richins also separated the group into those with "high" or "low"
materialism -- based on how much the students said they valued
possessions in their lives.
It turned out that the highly materialistic students were more
happy and excited than their peers shortly before buying their
desired item. That changed quickly in the weeks afterward, however,
In a separate survey -- this one of 180 U.S. consumers --
Richins found some hints as to why materialistic people get so
excited pre-purchase: They tend to believe that the car, flat
screen or laptop will somehow transform their lives for the
People with low levels of materialism were less prone to
believing purchases could have wide-reaching effects on their lives
-- even if they really wanted that car or TV.
But before those folks get too smug, other research suggests
that, on average, everyone expects a bit too much from the things
they buy, said Tom Meyvis, an associate professor of marketing at
the NYU Stern School of Business, in New York City.
And it's not only the cars and electronics, according to Meyvis.
People also expect too much of the puppy they adopt, or the
vacation they take -- even though, Meyvis noted, it often turns out
that "vacations aren't that great."
"People tend to overestimate how much events and experiences will affect their happiness in the long run," Meyvis said. "In the long term, it doesn't matter. You go back to your baseline level of happiness."
The problem is, people typically don't learn that. If you
believe that things or experiences will make you happier in your
life, that belief tends to be "sticky," Meyvis noted. And you may
selectively remember that one time that a new car did make you feel
better for a while.
So what to do? Both Meyvis and McFerran suggested putting more
thought into your purchases -- at least the big ones. Notice if you
want an item because you think it's going to make you happier, and
then try to remember the last time you believed that, and how it
"If you're aware of this, maybe you'll consider things more deeply," McFerran said, "And that might stem some purchases."
The Nemours Foundation has advice on
making holidays less materialistic.
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