Why A New Car Won’t Really Make You Happy

Take it from Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich: Soon after you bring a new car home, you’ll start to second-guess your purchase. You’ll compare it with your neighbors car, the cars you didn’t get, and the better deals you think you could have gotten, and your initial happiness will begin to fade. You’re much better off spending money on vacations, he says, which make us pretty happy in the short term, and even happier in the long term. Experiences bring us greater joy because they are more individual and harder for us to compare with other people’s (Telegraph).

For example, in one of the experiments Gilovich conducted with Travis Carter, volunteers who got a present that wasn’t as good as another gift they saw reported being less happy with their present than volunteers who got potato chips instead of a chocolate bar. The enjoyment that comes from the experience of eating chips isn’t undermined by seeing someone else eat a chocolate bar, the researchers explain, but material things don’t work the same way. As Gilovich explains in stark terms:

Imagine you buy a flat-panel TV. You come to my house, and I have a bigger, clearer picture than yours. You’re bummed out. But suppose you go on a vacation to the Caribbean. You find out I’ve done the same, and mine sounds better than yours. It might bother you a little bit, but not nearly to the same degree because you have your memories; it’s your idiosyncratic connection to the Caribbean that makes it your vacation. That makes it less comparable to mine, hence your enjoyment isn’t undermined as much (Cornell Chronicle)

But that’s not the whole picture, says another team of researchers, who reported last year that we’re happier with “experiential purchases” when they turn out well, but:

We show that the recommendation should include a caveat: Purchases that decrease happiness are less damaging when they are material purchases than when they are experiential purchases. (Journal of Consumer Research)

And as positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener told us yesterday, not everyone compares their possessions and experiences with those of others in the same way:

Comparisons can be either inspiring or demoralizing, and the specific turn of the screw depends largely on individual personality factors. To make matters even more complicated, researcher Alex Michalos introduced what he calls “multiple discrepancy theory.” At the heart of this theory is the idea that people do not simply make comparisons socially, contrasting themselves with friends and neighbors. They also compare themselves with other imaginary standards, such as past performance or future expectations.

Category: Positive Psychology


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  1. […] we told you earlier this week, many studies have shown that buying material things makes us less happy than […]

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