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.

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