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The Power of Possessions: Does Being Surrounded by Stuff Make Us Happy?

Here’s what the science says.

By Elena Gooray

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in our November/December 2016 print issue as a sidebar to “The Ministers of Minimalism.”


(Photo: iStockPhoto)


We often hear that “money can’t buy happiness.” But a 2011 review in The Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests spending does buy satisfaction, if we do it right. In surveys and controlled experiments, people reported increased happiness levels when following eight principles: spending on others rather than on themselves; choosing a few small treats (say, a bag of donut holes) over a single big option (like one huge donut); not focusing on comparisons between options while shopping; buying decisively rather than trying to build in safety nets, such as insurance or warranties; considering the everyday experience that would come with a purchase, such as the chores of homeownership; paying immediately for a delayed reward, like buying concert tickets weeks in advance; following crowd approval (hello Yelp!); and choosing experiences over objects.

Enjoy the Wait

Many studies have confirmed that we get more pleasure from experiences than from things. In a 2014 paper for Psychological Science, researchers had independent judges rate newspaper accounts of crowds lined up to shop. Their analysis found that crowds waiting for an experience were more cheerful and “better behaved” than those waiting for a material possession. And while nearly 100 college students in one study and more than 2,000 adults in another drew pleasure from both kinds of waiting, they were happier and more excited while waiting for an experience. We seem to heed this instinctually: Many of us will settle for an inferior item now over a better one later — like an iPhone 6 now over a future iPhone 7 — but will wait patiently for a superior experience.


A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

Buy this issue now


Don’t Pit Meaning Against Money

It’s tempting to interpret this apparent experience advantage as proof that material wealth itself doesn’t matter — it’s just a way to access situations that give life meaning. But wealth, and the stuff it buys, does promote a specific kind of well-being. Polling 132 countries that contained 96 percent of the world’s population, a Gallup survey found that both societal and individual wealth strongly influenced people’s evaluations of their quality of life. Where income had a much weaker impact was on feelings. Positive emotions in particular were more strongly predicted by social-psychological factors, such as feeling respected, having loved ones to count on, and getting to choose how we spend our time. Since life evaluations and feelings can be separated, countries might score high for one while falling short on the other. That’s the case in the United States: Despite a high income and strong life satisfaction, residents reported an above-average share of negative feelings. Maybe we aren’t spending our money the right way.