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Money = Happiness, But There’s a Catch

Popular culture tells us we’d be happier with more money, but how much is enough? John D. Rockefeller had a tongue-in-cheek reply to the query, “Just a little bit more,” while an entire countermovement scoffs at the notion that joy and contentment can be purchased, arguing that money is not the root of all happiness, but of all evil.

What does psychology have to say on the subject? According to a new San Francisco State University study, both camps are partially right: money can lead to greater happiness for the person possessing it and those around them, if it is used to buy experiences, not possessions.

According to SFU’s February 7 press release, the study by Ryan Howell, an assistant professor of psychology at SFU, “demonstrates that experiential purchases, such as a meal out or theater tickets, result in increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and vitality — a feeling of being alive.”

The remainder of the release describes the study procedure:

Participants in the study were asked to write reflections and answer questions about their recent purchases. Participants indicated that experiential purchases represented money better spent and greater happiness for both themselves and others. The results also indicate that experiences produce more happiness regardless of the amount spent or the income of the consumer.

Experiences also lead to longer-term satisfaction. “Purchased experiences provide memory capital,” Howell said. “We don’t tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object.

“People still believe that more money will make them happy, even though 35 years of research has suggested the opposite,” Howell said. “Maybe this belief has held because money is making some people happy some of the time, at least when they spend it on life experiences.”

“The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological need satisfaction” was conducted by Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and SF State graduate Graham Hill.

I know I feel happier when I spend money on dining out, movies, travel, or other experiences — shopping is fun too, but the excitement fades quickly after I’ve made my purchases — and I’m particularly interested to hear the thoughts of our blog readers regarding these findings. What is your reaction to this research, and how does it speak to your experience? Do you think more money would make you happier? Do you think it’s necessary to spend it on non-material experiences to maximize your happiness?

Money = Happiness, But There’s a Catch

Renée M. Grinnell

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APA Reference
Grinnell, R. (2018). Money = Happiness, But There’s a Catch. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Feb 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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