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People Overestimate the Happiness New Purchases Will Bring

By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- They say money can't buy happiness, and a new study suggests that's true for even the most materialistic.

Instead, the study found, these folks seem to be happiest right before they buy a coveted item. Once they have the purchase in hand, their joy fades quickly.

The findings may not be all that surprising, experts say. But the notion that you're a lot happier before a big buy than after -- particularly if you're on the more materialistic side -- had not been "empirically tested" before, said Brent McFerran, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the new research.

In real life, you might be able to think of times when you've anticipated an important purchase, then felt let down after buying it. But whether you learn from that, and stop putting so much stock in "stuff" is another matter, McFerran said.

"With big purchases, we're not making them that often," McFerran said. So you might not remember that last car did not actually bring you lasting joy.

"Or," McFerran said, "you might think, just because that car didn't make me happy doesn't mean this flat-screen TV won't. For some of us, there's always this hope -- a belief in 'retail therapy.'"

But based on the new findings, recently reported online in the Journal of Consumer Research, that therapy does not have lasting effects.

For the study, Marsha Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri in Columbia, surveyed 329 undergraduates on three separate occasions. In the first survey, the students were asked about an important purchase they expected to make during that semester; the later surveys asked them how they felt after the buy.

Richins also separated the group into those with "high" or "low" materialism -- based on how much the students said they valued possessions in their lives.

It turned out that the highly materialistic students were more happy and excited than their peers shortly before buying their desired item. That changed quickly in the weeks afterward, however, Richins found.

In a separate survey -- this one of 180 U.S. consumers -- Richins found some hints as to why materialistic people get so excited pre-purchase: They tend to believe that the car, flat screen or laptop will somehow transform their lives for the better.

People with low levels of materialism were less prone to believing purchases could have wide-reaching effects on their lives -- even if they really wanted that car or TV.

But before those folks get too smug, other research suggests that, on average, everyone expects a bit too much from the things they buy, said Tom Meyvis, an associate professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, in New York City.

And it's not only the cars and electronics, according to Meyvis. People also expect too much of the puppy they adopt, or the vacation they take -- even though, Meyvis noted, it often turns out that "vacations aren't that great."

"People tend to overestimate how much events and experiences will affect their happiness in the long run," Meyvis said. "In the long term, it doesn't matter. You go back to your baseline level of happiness."

The problem is, people typically don't learn that. If you believe that things or experiences will make you happier in your life, that belief tends to be "sticky," Meyvis noted. And you may selectively remember that one time that a new car did make you feel better for a while.

So what to do? Both Meyvis and McFerran suggested putting more thought into your purchases -- at least the big ones. Notice if you want an item because you think it's going to make you happier, and then try to remember the last time you believed that, and how it turned out.

"If you're aware of this, maybe you'll consider things more deeply," McFerran said, "And that might stem some purchases."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has advice on making holidays less materialistic.

SOURCES: Brent McFerran, Ph.D., assistant professor, marketing, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Tom Meyvis, Ph.D., associate professor, marketing, NYU Stern School of Business, New York City; Dec. 19, 2012, Journal of Consumer Research online

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