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Materialistic People Are Less Happy Than Everyone Else: Science

05/27/2014 08:01 am ET | Updated May 27, 2014
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Money can buy happiness, just as long as you’re not materialistic.

For a while now, conventional wisdom -- with the backing of science -- has held that you’ll be happier spending your paycheck on a trip to Hawaii than on another pair of Nikes. But a recent study, conducted by researchers at San Francisco State University, suggests that one personality type is an exception to the rule: Materialists.

According to their findings, “material buyers” -- defined in the study as people who value materialistic pursuits and prefer buying material goods over experiences -- aren’t any happier when they make "experiential" purchases like trips to Hawaii. Funny thing is, they're not happier after a materialistic purchase, either -- maybe because they're worried about being judged for being so materialistic.

Over the course of three experiments, San Francisco State researchers classified a group of several hundred adults according to personality types, ranging from less materialistic to more materialistic. About a third of the group were materialistic personalities. Each person was asked to rate a material or experiential purchase according to questions such as, “how much has this purchase contributed to your overall life happiness?”

The more-materialistic participants got less happiness from experiential purchases, because such purchases didn't fit with their personality and values. The researchers assumed these participants would at least get a “happiness boost” from material purchases, which better suit their values. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, material buyers weren’t any happier with their material purchases than with their experiential ones.

“Typically, when you’re congruent with your values, you’re happier,” Dr. Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "But there are certain value systems that are shunned by society. When we find out someone is materialistic, we think less of them, and that drives their happiness down.”

People who display materialistic values tend to be seen by others as having negative personality traits like narcissism and shallowness, said Howell, who has contributed to other studies linking experiential purchases with happiness. He is also the co-founder of BeyondThePurchase.Org, which advises consumers on happiness-maximizing purchases.

In fact, according to a personality scale known as the Experiential Buying Tendency Scale (developed in part by Howell), materialistic personality types do exhibit increased neuroticism, poorer interpersonal relationships and less empathy than non-materialists. Oh, and a "Machiavellian personality profile," characterized by "envy, possessiveness, nongenerosity, and the pursuit of extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals." So there you go.

For materialists, it's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. While material purchases might make them feel happier, they can’t fully enjoy their material spoils because they feel judged. In contrast, Howell said, an experiential purchase can’t make a materialist any happier, because “they’re trying to impress others, and it doesn’t meet their psychological needs.”

But there’s hope for materialists, and it comes in the form of a truism: Be yourself.

“Our models predict that if [materialists] make more authentic purchases, rather than trying to impress others, they will be happier,” Howell said. He plans another study to test this hypothesis.

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