Study shows material goods don't fill void
February 18, 2009 8:49 PM
Buying tickets to spend three days in the desert while listening to a rock festival can make someone happier than buying the new smart phone, according to a new study led by SF State Assistant Professor Ryan Howell.
Howell, alongside SF State alumnus Graham Hill, conducted a study that concluded buying life experiences would give consumers more happiness as opposed to possessions, because it gives them a sense of being alive. Unlike life experiences, possessions might be forgotten over time, Howell said.
The study began 16 months ago and was finished last summer. It will be published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, although the time of publication is still pending.
The study was a surprise to Howell. His initial thoughts were that people wanted to buy life experiences for social needs, such as spending time with friends and family. However, the study suggests that people are happier with experiences because it gives them a sense of being alive.
Hill, who met Howell in his senior year, was also surprised at the role reflection played in happiness.
"People tend to adapt to material objects very quickly, whereas experiences seem to stick with people longer, and make them happier when they think back on them," Howell said.
The study was conducted through a survey created by Howell and Hill, using students from a study pool at SF State.
Howell said he was intrigued by the link between happiness and income after he and his wife interviewed poor Malaysian farmers about their wealth and life satisfaction.
"I conjectured that when individuals live in affluence, they would need to spend their income on purchases which would satisfy their psychological needs in order to be happier," Howell said.
Given the current economic situation and the decrease in discretionary income, Howell said that depending on the person, people would be more inclined to buy experiences if they were looking for escapism.
"If you haven't had your basic needs met, then you should be spending your money on food and shelter," he said. "If you['ve] got your needs met and you purchase an iPod, you still are not going to be happy because that's not going to fulfill your basic needs."
Even students who are short on cash can buy happiness, said Hill.
"It didn't matter how much money people spent on the experience, they still received the same increase in happiness," Hill said.
"So for students, who usually don't have a lot of extra money, something as simple as going to a coffee house with friends, or going out to a movie, can contribute more to their happiness than spending a lot of money on something like a pair of jeans or sunglasses that might get tired of in a few weeks," he said.
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