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Why retail therapy doesn't work

A new study indicates that buying stuff isn't as life-changing as we think it will be.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 7, 2013 12:08PM

Logo: Shopping (Corbis)This just in: Shopping doesn't provide lasting happiness. 

So all those commercials were lying to us? A new car/suit/brand of beer won't provide everlasting fulfillment?

Nope. In fact, you're more likely to be happy just before you buy something than after it's in your hands. According to a new study from the Journal of Consumer Research, "the positive emotions associated with acquisition are short-lived."

This isn't news to those who've found they need to keep shopping to maintain that happy mine-mine-mine buzz. Between trips, they probably try and keep the thrill alive by reflecting on their closets full of clothes, garages full of motorized toys or shelves full of collectibles.

"Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts," says study author Marsha L. Richins, who calls these folks "materialists."

Since materialists think about acquisition fairly often, this would seem to be a self-sustaining system: buy stuff, be happy; think about the stuff you recently bought, stay happy.

If only.

"Although materialists still experience positive emotions after making a purchase, these emotions are less intense than before they actually acquire a product," Richins notes in the study, which will appear in the June 2013 issue of JCR and is currently available for a fee through the JSTOR website.

The thrill of the hunt?
Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, found that materialists truly believe that certain purchases will improve self-esteem, interpersonal relationships and overall quality of life.

Yet they were happiest right before they bought these items. Hence the title of her study, "When Wanting is Better Than Having: Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process."

Such behavior can lead to serious financial problems. Richins writes that materialists are more likely to spend too much and to have issues with credit.

You'd think that over time people would realize that possessions generally don't change lives. But no one ever went broke underestimating our willingness to buy into hype, or our need to believe in a quick fix.

A little perspective

Of course, certain purchases can improve our lives in some ways. Better-quality shoes are easier on your feet, for instance, and homeownership can support a deep-seated need for a place of your own (even though it comes with a whole new set of challenges).

But the smartphone that looked so cool in the commercial doesn't come with a fun group of new friends. The cold beer that enticed hot chicks in the ad will in the real world leave you with nothing but a big bar tab (and a lighter wallet).

A rational person can put a consumeristic culture in perspective. Materialists have trouble doing that.

Richin's conclusion: "Learning that acquisition is less pleasurable than anticipating a purchase may help (materialists) delay purchases until they are better able to afford them."

Give it a try. Instead of hoping that the next new purchase will bring lasting happiness, think back to the last time you thought that -- and reflect on how it turned out.

While certain big-ticket items may be the exception, chances are you can't even remember why you wanted a specific purse. It's also unlikely that your next-gen phone has completely transformed your life.

More from MSN Money
Feb 7, 2013 1:51PM

   Although I support awareness of "affluenza," there seems to be a pop-media push to stigmatize "materialists."  Remember that there is a spectrum of behavior between manic, obssessive spending and what I'd term Mindful Acquisition.  Some folks get a thrill out of searching out, chasing down, negotiating for, and possessing a rusty, non-running '68 Triumph Bonneville.  They don't do it as an affront to the neighbors; the neighbors' opinions don't even enter in consideration - although I suspect most "collectors" are highly tolerant. That type of acquisition is a most personal pursuit and reward.  And the Triumph aficionado might not agree with his sister's closet full of Manolo Blahniks, but he doesn't judge her interest pejoratively.

  Not everyone who possesses "stuff" deserves shunning or, worse, a Helping Professional; some of us do value objects differently, or more, than the norm.  It's common knowledge that the infamously dreaded "hoarders" find comfort in memories associated with objects, and often find reward in re-purposing throwaways.  The concept that every individual must conform to a rigid standard is chiliingly un-American.  America might not treasure its eccentrics as, say, British culture does, yet we're not at the point where every nail gets hammered down.  I hope.

Feb 10, 2013 12:34PM

I found this to be a terrific article.

I don't consider myself of the "American Consumerist" mentality, but I do get when I want.


The author seems to counsel those that don't realize the compromise they enter as consumers;  instant gratification versus longer-term gratification (which potentially includes financial security).


Be it far from me to counsel, as we need an ever expanding base of consumers for this economy to thrive, but I have a hard time feeling sympathy for those that spend above their means and complain about their financial straits...


One of the positive traits of savers is 'sleeping on an idea'; you get to weigh the satisfaction of knowing you could do the deal; of 'feeling' the satisfaction of new owner-ship;  But you wake up with your checking accounts intact (or not having added to your debt-load).  Try it!


I look forward to all the informed comments this article will surely bring.





Feb 7, 2013 6:38PM

If you can afford to shop everyday then by all means go ahead and feed the economy.  I think a lot of people though shop out of boredom (and the high they get doing it), these people would benefit from getting a hobby, joining hobby groups and or volunteering their time.


I'm all for consumerism, just within ones means and not to the point of being determental to your relationships, life etc.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.