Given a choice, it's better to be miserable in a heated jacuzzi than be homeless on the streets of New York City during a blizzard.
But that 'money can't buy happiness' saying arose because some people just can't be happy - and money won't help. Psychology is subjective and relative so we're only left with averaging surveys but, generally, people who spend more on life experiences are happier than people who just buy stuff. Plenty of people are happy when they buy a new phone or a TV but it quickly becomes commonplace. If you are a football fan, and finally buy that trip to the Super Bowl, you are pretty happy.
Some people are not happy no matter what; they are filling their lives with stuff or events and it doesn't do any good. For them, money truly does not buy happiness but, like with happiness, they have forgotten what true misery is like also.
Survey results in
the Journal of Research in Personality find that certain material buyers are in that latter camp.When material buyers purchase material items they are not happy, because others in their cultural sphere may criticize their choices but if they indulge on newer life experiences, they are no happier because the purchase is likely out of line with their personality and values.
"Extremely material buyers, who represent about a third of the overall population, are sort of stuck. They're not really happy with either purchase," said Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and co-author of the study. "I'm a baseball fan. If you tell me, 'Go spend money on a life experience,' and I buy tickets to a baseball game, that would be authentic to who I am, and it will probably make me happy. On the other hand, I'm not a big museum guy. If I bought tickets to an art museum, I would be spending money on a life experience that seems like it would be the right choice, but because it's not true to my personality, I'm not going to be any happier as a result."
Although the link between experiential purchases and happiness had been well demonstrated, Howell said few studies have examined the types of people who experience no benefits. To do so, he and his colleagues surveyed shoppers to find out if there were any factors that limited the happiness boost from experiential purchases. The researchers found that those who tend to spend money on material items reported no happiness boost from experiential purchases because those purchases did not give them an increased sense of "identity expression" -- the belief that they bought something that reflected their personality.
"The results show it is not correct to say to everyone, 'If you spend money on life experiences you'll be happier,' because you need to take into account the values of the buyer," said Jia Wei Zhang, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who conducted the research with Howell while an undergraduate at SF State.
Reasons someone may buy a life experience that doesn't reflect his or her personality include a desire to fit in or spend time with others, according to Zhang. And researchers did find that material buyers feel closer to friends or family following an experiential purchase. That feeling of closeness, however, was not enough to counter the lack of identity expression and therefore provide the happiness boost.
"There are a lot of reasons someone might buy something," Howell said, "but if the reason is to maximize happiness, the best thing for that person to do is purchase a life experience that is in line with their personality."