People buy things to compete and stand out, but a new handbag won’t make you happier, says professor

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Why do we buy certain things, and does it make us happier? Sociological and psychological forces are at work when people are adding to their shopping carts. 

People consume so much partly because of competitive consumption, explains Omar Lizardo, a professor of sociology at UCLA: “You see your neighbor buy a new car or buy a new gadget, and then you want to have it.” He adds that it is a way of signaling status. 

But the inverse can also be true. People buy something to be different from others, including those who can’t appreciate it in the same way or who can’t afford it, Lizardo explains. 

But if you’re buying things in pursuit of happiness, then “those goals are never really satiated,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at UC Riverside who studies happiness. “Because you buy something and then you want more, you buy a bag or a car or an iPhone, and then you want to upgrade, and you want the next thing.” 

Lyubomirsky adds, “Studies show that people who try to buy happiness, people who buy things or are more materialistic, are actually less happy.” In fact, she says that people who spend money on experiences, like vacations and dinners with friends, are happier than those who spend money on materialistic possessions, like a new handbag or new poster to hang on the wall.  

Research has shown that there are three ways to spend money to make us happy. Lyubomirsky explains the first is spending money on connecting with others; the second is spending it on personal growth, such as a cooking or crafting class; the third is spending it on your community (philanthropy or helping others).