Of course, New York is a famous shopping destination. Visitors fly home with an extra piece of luggage bursting with new purchases. Any high street or shopping mall promises an endorphin rush of retail therapy treatment. This psychological trick has been key in creating value for global and local brands alike: think Sennhauser, Selfridges, Burberry, Jimmy Choo. The question is: does retail therapy actually work?
Professor Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds has asked just this question. Do we actually feel better after we splash out on a new bag or a gadget? And, more importably, does the joy last?
Professor Wiseman suggests filling in the following questionnaire to rate your level of materialism. I encourage you to do this quickly, even if popping into Selfridges or Bloomingdale’s isn’t your idea of a perfect day.
1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree
1. I am impressed by people who own expensive cars and houses 1 2 3 4 5
2. I tend to judge how well I am doing in life by the possessions I buy 1 2 3 4 5
3. I like to buy things I don’t really need 1 2 3 4 5
4. I like to be surrounded by expensive items 1 2 3 4 5
5. I think that my life would be better if I owned more luxury items 1 2 3 4 5
6. I am sometimes bothered by the fact that I can’t afford to buy certain luxury goods 1 2 3 4 5
7. Buying expensive items makes me feel good about myself 1 2 3 4 5
8. I seem to put more emphasis on material things than most of my friends and family 1 2 3 4 5
9. I am prepared to pay significantly more money for branded items 1 2 3 4 5
10. I enjoy owning items that others find impressive 1 2 3 4 5
Add up your scores. If you are between 40 and 50, you place high value on acquisition of possessions, you frequently associate happiness and success with being able to acquire things and you rate yourself and others by what you or they have. If your score is between 10 and 20, you value relationships and experiences more than possessions. If you are between 21 and 39, you are averagely materialistic and are, statistically speaking, of little interest.
According to Wiseman, researchers have spent a great deal of time looking at the link between high scores in such questionnaires and happiness. “The findings are as consistent as they are worrying - high scores tend to be associated with feeling unhappy and unsatisfied with life.”
Why is this the case? It’s not about the financial consequences of always wanting the latest thing, but of how the money is spent. You see, materialists tend to be more self-centred. Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia conducted a survey among employees who received bonuses of $3,000 - $8,000 and found that people who spent a greater share of money on others were far happier than people who spent it on themselves. To prove that causality is indeed the “right” way, i.e. that spending money on others induces happiness rather than that happy people spend more money on others, Dunn and colleagues conducted another experiment where two groups people were given $20 to spend each. One randomly put together group of people was asked to spend money on themselves, whilst in the other group people were asked to buy presents for friends or family. "Participants who spent the money on their friends and family ended up feeling significantly happier than those who treated themselves."
It turns out that such findings aren’t surprising at all. "Neuroeconomist William Harbaugh and his colleagues from the University of Oregon gave participants $100 in a virtual bank account and asked them to lie down in a brain scanner. Participants first saw some of their money being given to help those in need via mandatory taxation, and were then asked to decide whether to donate some of the remaining amount to charity or keep it for themselves. The scanning results revealed that two evolutionary ancient regions deep in the brain - the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens - became active when participants witnessed some of their money going to those in need, and were especially busy when they donated money voluntarily. These two brain regions also spring into action when our most basic needs are met, such as when we eat tasty food or feel valued by others, suggesting a direct brain-based link between helping others and happiness.
Wiseman concludes that the only retail therapy that is capable of making you happy is when you spend money on others. (And if you don’t have spare cash, why not perform an act of kindness towards a friend or a stranger, which does not have to cost anything at all.)
But what makes people materialistic in the first place? Wiseman brings up research carried out by psychologists Lan Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder John, who published an article in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2007, arguing that “materialism takes root in early childhood, and is mainly driven by low self-esteem.” In their study children aged between eight and eighteen completed a questionnaire rating their self-esteem (with questions like “Are you happy with the way you look”?), before given a display board with images showing sports, hobbies, such as arts and music, friends, family, school and material things, such as new shoes or a computer. The children were asked to choose as many images as they liked to put together a collage “What makes me happy”. The task allowed researchers to assess the level of materialism, calculating the percentage of “material” images selected. Comparing the results revealed a strong link between low self-esteem and materialism.
Wiseman also recommends that we “buy experiences not goods”.
Psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich, quoted in 59 Seconds, conducted a number of studies which proved that buying experiences made people more happy than buying products both in he short- and in the long-term. The reason for that is our memories are easily edited so that we forget about the long wait at the airport and only remember the idyllic beach and the beautiful sunset. By contrast, purchases go out of fashion, we get used to them and stop noticing the gadgets only recently appearing so shiny at the Apple store. Also, experiences “force” us to spend time with others, and sociability is known to induce happiness. Conversely, certain purchases may isolate you from friends who might get jealous of your latest expensive treat.
There seems to be one last thing to add: grab a friend and go on holiday!