Can You Really Buy Happiness?

How the Culture of Consumption is at odds with your personal well-being

The good life. It’s a term that has been around for much of recorded human thought, and, given the current state of affairs in our world, is something many desperately strive toward. The sad reality though, is that whilst there is much striving toward the good life, precious few are finding it, and many are instead finding themselves in ever deeper personal adversity.

Whilst there are some differences in just how to define and conceptualise the good life, many theorists agree that aspects such as satisfaction in life, emotional experiences, healthy relationships, and meaning are important determining aspects. Understanding how the good life is conceptualised is important, as it further opens the door toward a second conceptualisation of the good life, one that is near inescapable in our modern, hyper-connected world – that being; that the good life comes from the accumulation of wealth, and the purchase of things. This second message of the good life is everywhere we look, and is often overtly, or covertly component to our work, home and down-time.

Okay, I can already hear some of you saying, “hang on, it is always better to cry in a Rolls Royce than it is to cry in an Uno”.  Great point. The question that we perhaps should be asking though is WHY is the person in the Rolls Royce crying? Take a moment to review what was noted above, the current world we live in notes the good life to be the accumulation of wealth and things, but if wealth and things are not good enough, or are not perceived as being sufficient, then technically, the tears cried in the Uno and Rolls are the same, they are both tears of discontent and perhaps even emptiness.

The Rolls Royce anecdote aside, research into the current dichotomy of what the good life is can provide us with some answers here.

Research has used people’s values and goals as a measure to determine the degree to which they are focused more on the classical viewpoint of the good life, or, the more modern, consumerist viewpoint. Goals and values here are divided into two categories, the first category being extrinsic in nature. Extrinsic goals and values are seen most prominently when people ‘buy-into’ the messages of consumerist culture, and consequentially, they organise their lives around accumulating money, things, status and image. These pursuits are very much external to the person. The second category, namely; intrinsic focuses more on striving toward personal growth, greater intimacy and contribution to the greater good. Such behaviours are seen as being intrinsic in nature as they are inherently more satisfying to pursue, and have a far greater capacity to satisfy the deep psychological needs that are the backbone of happiness and well-being.

When using intrinsic versus extrinsic values and goals categorisations, and assessing well-being, research has consistently found, across the world, that extrinsically orientated people score lower on satisfaction with life, happiness, experience fewer positive emotions, have more physical symptoms, turn more to drugs and alcohol and present with a greater chance for developing behavioural disorders. Generally, people who organise their lives around extrinsic values (read accumulating wealth and things) report higher levels of distress, and have a greater chance of being diagnosed with psychopathology.

In a nutshell then, it seems that chasing or lusting after ever more money and stuff does not gel well with the psyche. If you are one of the many people who get caught by the trap of the newest gadget (here is where I put my hand up), trend and design fad, do not feel too bad, you have been victim of an incredibly sophisticated and well-researched machine called modern advertising.

Here’s the thing. Well-being in human beings is, for the most part, enhanced when people feel that they are having experiences which satisfy four key psychological needs:

  • The need to feel safe and secure;
  • The need to feel competent and that one is capable;
  • The need to feel connected to other people (to belong) and;
  • The need to feel autonomy (control) and authentic.

Marketers and advertisers are well aware of the psychological power of the four needs noted above, and they know how to activate each of them in their advertisements. For instance, let’s take an example of an automobile manufacturer advertising their new luxury sedan. Firstly, they will indicate to you how the car is able to insulate you from the noisy, and unsafe world around you (safety and security need); secondly, they will show other people staring and admiring the car, meaning that your purchase of the car infers you have ‘made it’ in life (competence needs) that members of the opposite sex find the car attractive (relatedness/connectedness needs) and that the car can help you escape the chaos of the city with its power and grace (autonomy needs).

The problem of course is that the advertisement, whilst excellent at targeting those key psychological needs, holds little promise of actually satisfying those needs. Research once again confirms that those who chase after the promise created by consumerism, find themselves experiencing lower safety need satisfaction (because the next model is on its way and mine is now rubbish); lower competence need satisfaction (as their self-esteem is based on what they have, and someone will always have something better, meaning they are never good enough), have poor connection need satisfaction (their relationships are often fraught with conflict) and poor autonomy and authenticity need satisfaction (as their happiness is dictated by whether they have the latest model, and, that model/device may not even be what they really like in the first place).

With all this said, the sad reality is that people buy stuff to numb the pain, or escape from something. This is particularly evident when people are unhappy, realise they will not live forever, or have to face the fact that they have failed to live up to important ideals. Like drinking, shopping may well temporarily distract people from unpleasantries, it does little to help people actually confront and solve the problems that brought about the negative emotions in the first place.

So, what does one then do to start finding greater focus on the intrinsic goals and values, and in so doing, start on the path to the good life? Below are two suggestions that could assist:

1.  Connection to other people:

The simple act of attending a religious service, going out with friends, attending an art class, exercising with a friend, playing music, phoning a friend, or any positive activity that involves significant others has been proven by research to be far more effective at alleviating unpleasant feelings, yet, also has a significant positive effect on satisfying the need for affiliation (connection), community feeling (connection) and personal growth (autonomy and authenticity).

2.  Accept that relapses happen:

Just like any other addiction, or habit for that matter, it is important to realise and accept that it takes time to change one’s goal and value focus, and, that there probably will be times when you do a binge shop, or compulsive buy. Remember, it is okay to be human, progress in this instance always trumps perfection.

In summary then, whilst modern society punts materialistic obsession as the good life panacea, the reality of such obsession is a low quality of life, characterised by poor psychological need satisfaction and psychopathology. In contrast, by simplifying life, and getting back to the basics, that is, the need for genuine human contact and connection, holds far more salience in finding the path toward the good life.

References & Further Reading

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Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

Belk, R. W. (1985). Materialism: Trait aspects of living in the material world. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 265–280.

Braun, O. L., & Wicklund, R. A. (1989). Psychological antecedents of conspicuous consumption. Journal of Economic Psychology, 10, 161–187.

Chang, L., & Arkin, R. M. (2002). Materialism as an attempt to cope with uncertainty. Psychology and Marketing, 19, 389–406.

Cohen, P., & Cohen, J. (1996). Life values and adolescent mental health. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821–827.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.

Emmons, R. A. (1989). The personal strivings approach to personality. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 87–126). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Faber, R. J. (2004). Self-control and compulsive buying. In T. Kasser & A. D. Kanner (Eds.), Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world (pp. 169–187). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kasser, T. (2004). The good life or the goods life? Positive psychology and personal well-being in the culture of consumption. In P.A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 55-67). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kasser, T. (2002). Sketches for a self-determination theory of values. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.). Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 123–140). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280–287.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life goals and well-being: Toward a positive psychology of human striving (pp. 116–131). Goettingen, Germany: Hogrefe & Huber.

Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2000). Of wealth and death: Materialism, mortality salience, and consumption behavior. Psychological Science, 11, 352–355.

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Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

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Sheldon, K. M., Elliot, A. J., Kim, Y., & Kasser, T. (2001). What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate psychological needs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 325–339.

Sirgy, M. J. (1998). Materialism and quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 43, 227–260. Williams, G. C., Cox, E. M., Hedberg, V. A., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Extrinsic life goals and health risk behaviors in adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 1756–1771.