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“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.”
– Bo Derek
Derek, in one way or another, may have been onto something. We’ve all heard the term “retail therapy,” but is it the experience of going out and shopping that makes us feel better or the items themselves? Numerous studies say it’s the former, lending credence to the idea that money spent on experiences, not material possessions, provides us with more life satisfaction.
“Experiences are always in our memory bank to draw upon whenever we are feeling down. On a gloomy day, one can always reflect back on a pleasurable time: a trip, family gathering, activity,” licensed professional counselor Patricia Bubash told The Culture Trip. “Certainly, going on a shopping trip gives us an activity, a re-focus from whatever is causing gloomy thoughts or depression. But as soon as that purchase is made and brought home, the experience is over. We are back to where we were. The joy of the ‘buy’ is short-lived.”
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that retail therapy does in fact work to relieve sadness. In particular, the researchers found that the opportunity to have choices and make definitive decisions to purchase items gave consumers a sense of control after uncontrollable, sadness-evoking events. However the study’s authors note, as Bubash did, that the experience of relief from sadness may be temporary for any number of reasons including increased debt from shopping. So, while shopping may give one more control in the moment, it may actually result in a loss of control in other aspects of consumers’ lives.
So if shopping offers a short-lived burst of joy, what will give us a lasting one?
Though happiness isn’t necessarily a measurable thing, satisfaction certainly is. A study by researchers at Cornell University reviewed years of research on whether people derive more satisfaction from purchasing material things or experiences. Overwhelmingly, the results pointed to experiential purchases being more gratifying for consumers because of enhanced social relations, more opportunity for personal growth, and less competition in terms of social status.
Consequently, the thinking goes, an adventure in the Brazilian rainforest will have much more of an impact on your identity than say, a multi-thousand dollar Birkin bag. Each has its value, of course. But adventure is clearly the better investment when it comes to gratification.
“Experiences incite greater and more intense emotional responses than do possessions,” Human Behavior Expert PhD and creator of SRTT Therapy Patrick Wanis told The Culture Trip. “Experiences tend to include other people and thus connections and interactions with other people can also generate great satisfaction. Experiences can also become hypnotic when they engage all of our senses. Because human nature tends to take things for granted, we also quickly tire of possessions once they lose that ‘sparkle.’”