We have been told our whole lives that money can’t buy happiness, but few of us believe it. British psychologist Richard J. Wiseman, in his outstanding book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, writes, “In survey after survey, the need for a fatter wallet consistently tops the ‘must have’ list for happiness.”
So we believe that more money will make us happy, but will it? The research on this is also clear. After your basic needs are met, more money doesn’t increase day-to-day happiness.
What is interesting is not just that money can’t buy happiness, but that the belief that it will – materialism – is highly correlated with unhappiness.
In the research paper, “Zeroing In On the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal for Financial Success” Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others examined the attitudes of twelve thousand college freshman at elite universities in 1976. A follow-up study was done 20 years later.
In summarizing the results of the study Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, wrote, “Those who had expressed materialistic aspirations as freshmen – that is, making money was their primary goal – were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.”
Other studies have backed up these findings. Materialistic attitudes appear to be highly correlated with unhappiness.
So how materialistic are you? In 59 Seconds Wiseman provided a quiz to help you answer that question. Here is the quiz:
“Take a few moments to read the following ten statements and assign each of them a rating indicating the degree to which it describes you. Don’t spend too long thinking about each statement. Just answer honestly….Assign each item a rating between 1 (“strongly disagree”) and 5 (“strongly agree”).
- I am impressed by people who own expensive cars and houses.
- I tend to judge how well I am doing in life by the possessions that I buy.
- I like to buy things that I really don’t need.
- I like to be surrounded by expensive items.
- I think my life would be better if I owned more luxury items.
- I am sometimes bothered by the fact that I can’t afford to buy certain luxury goods.
- Buying expensive items makes me feel good about myself.
- I seem to put more emphasis on material things than most of my friends and family do.
- I am prepared to pay significantly more money for branded items.
- I enjoy owning items that others find impressive.
Now add up your ratings. Low scores are between 10 and 20, medium scores between 21 and 39, and high scores between 40 and 50.”
Interpreting Your Score
High Score (between 40 and 50): “People who obtain high scores clearly tend to place a great deal of importance on the acquisition of possessions, frequently view such items as central to their happiness, and judge their own success, and the success of others, on the basis of what they have.
Low Score (between 10 and 20): “Those with low scores value experiences and relationships more than possessions.”
Middling Scores (between 21 and 39): Researchers are never sure what to do with those in the middle, so Wiseman simply states, somewhat sarcastically, “As is so often the case, those with middling scores are of little interest to anyone.”
I snuck in at the high end of the low scale, with a score of 19. I have never considered myself materialistic, but some of these questions really made me think. For example, question 1 about being impressed by people who own expensive houses or cars. I gave myself a score of 2 on this one, but I have to admit I went to a wedding reception in the backyard of a house last weekend that I was really impressed with. Perhaps the reason I didn’t score higher on the quiz is simply because I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with people who own impressive things.
What was your score, and what did you learn about yourself from the quiz?
The Cure for Materialistic Malaise
Speaking to those with high scores Wiseman states, “Researchers have spent a great deal of time looking at the link between people’s scores on these types of questionnaires and happiness. The findings are as consistent as they are worrisome – high scores tend to be associated with feeling unhappy and unsatisfied with life.”
He adds, “Of course, this is not the case with every single materialist, so if you did get a high score you might be one of the happy-go-lucky people who buck the trend. (However, before adopting that viewpoint, bear in mind that studies carried out by psychologists also suggest that whenever we are confronted with a negative result from tests, we prove to be good at convincing ourselves that we are an exception to the rule.)”
If you got a high score, and think materialism might be making you unhappy, what can you do about it?
The cure for materialistic malaise is simple, and also backed up by extensive research: start doing more to help others.
So if you have been trying to achieve happiness through “retail therapy” now is the time to try a new approach. In the wise words of Wiseman, “Scientifically speaking, if you want some real retail therapy, help yourself by helping others. It has a direct effect on your brain that in turn makes you feel happier.”