It’s an old chestnut, isn’t it? The question of whether money can buy you happiness or not. It’s attracted a great deal of research over the years, engaging psychologists and economists alike, and it’s at the heart of many commonly held beliefs in folk psychology too.
The idea of retail therapy stems from such an assumption, for instance, as does the notion that money can be a vital route to life-enriching experiences which, in turn, will then deliver satisfaction. Indeed, a recurrent theme in the literature concerns the notion of experiential consumption. Generally speaking, there has been a loose consensus that spending money on a novel life-enriching experience, rather than on purely materialistic goods, will deliver at least a short-term sense of pleasure.
New research by Zhang and his colleagues, however, reported in the Journal of Research in Personality, adds some important qualifiers to this assumption. This may perhaps seem something of a truism, but it seems that whether buying an experience makes you any happier actually depends on the type of person you are. For the one-in-three of us who fall into the “material buyer” category, for instance, treating ourselves to a Katy Perry concert ticket will deliver no greater pleasure than buying a very good bottle of malt whisky. And even those of us who are more experiential in our personality profiles will only derive happiness from an experience that actually matches our interests and desires.
That last point is the most crucial element of this research, I think. It has always been assumed in the literature that any new life experience we buy will deliver at least a degree of happiness if we are that “type” of person. In practice, however, it’s the fit between our personality and the experience itself that is the deciding factor. Last November, I was fortunate enough to watch the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who live in a movie theatre with a couple of hundred other “Whovians”, a novel experience that made me very happy. Had my partner bought me a trip in a hot air balloon instead, however, I’d have gained no pleasure at all from that once-in-a-lifetime experience because, frankly, I don’t like heights!