People who pursue happiness through material possessions are liked less by their peers than people who pursue happiness through life experiences, according to a new study. The decade long study focused on the social costs and benefits of pursuing happiness through the acquisition of life experiences such as traveling and going to concerts versus the purchase of material possessions like fancy cars and jewelry. It found that material possessions don't provide as much enduring happiness as the pursuit of life experiences. The "take home" message in the study, which appears in this month's edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that not only will investing in material possessions make us less happy than investing in life experiences, but that it often makes us less popular among our peers as well.
What researchers found was that people who had discussed their material possessions liked their conversation partner less than those who had discussed an experience they had purchased. They also were less interested in forming a friendship with them, so there's a real social cost to being associated with material possessions rather than life experiences. In another experiment using a national survey, the researchers told people about someone who had purchased a material item such as a new shirt or a life experience like a concert ticket. They then asked them a number of questions about that person. They found that simply learning that someone made a material purchase caused them to like him or her less than learning that someone made an experiential purchase.
We have pretty negative stereotypes of people who are materialistic. When researchers asked people to think of someone who is materialistic and describe their personality traits, selfish and self-centered come up pretty frequently. However, when we asked people to describe someone who is more experiential in nature, things like altruistic, friendly and outgoing come up much more frequently. So what do you do if you're somebody who really likes to buy lots of material possessions? The short answer is you should try to change. Not just this research, but a lot of other research has found that people who are materialistic incur many mental health costs and social costs - they're less happy and more prone to depression.
One thing we can do is choose to be around people who are less interested in material goods. It's not a quick fix, but it can be done. What makes it particularly challenging is that it requires some extra effort and mindfulness about the way we make decisions about how to be happy in life.