Imagine that someone gives you a cash gift and tells you that, instead of saving or investing it, you need to spend it right now. What should you put your money toward if you want to make yourself happiest?
According to past research, we’ll be happier if we spend money on an experience than if we buy a material object—like traveling or going out for a meal instead of buying the latest product we see on social media. For example, people report more gratitude when they spend on experiences rather than possessions.
On the other hand, we can all probably think of times when we’ve spent money on an experience that ended up not being worth it. Maybe you bought pricey event tickets to avoid missing out, only to realize on the day of the event that you’d much prefer a cozy night at home. Or perhaps you went out to dinner with a friend at a fancy restaurant, only to find that your friend was more focused on posting the meal to Instagram than having a deep conversation.
It turns out that there might be another factor at play beyond whether we spend money on an experience or a material item: According to a new study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, it may also matter how our purchases align with our goals.
In the study, researchers asked 452 participants in an online survey to describe a recent purchase. They were asked to write about something they had spent money on in the last three months (ranging from about $60 to $1,200), excluding everyday expenses such as bills and groceries. After describing it, people were asked to indicate the extent to which the purchase helped to fulfill different goals. They also noted how much they felt the purchase contributed to their happiness and life satisfaction.
According to self-determination theory, goals reflect our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Extrinsic goals are things that other people expect for us: for example, working hard at a job not because you’re passionate about the work, but because you need the money or want a high-status job to impress others. Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, are ones that we have a strong internal motivation to pursue. In the survey, extrinsic goals included gaining wealth or social status, whereas intrinsic ones included cultivating relationships, helping other people, and contributing to growth, learning, and development.
The researchers found that, the more a purchase reflected people’s intrinsic goals, the more they thought it improved their well-being. In other words, the greatest well-being occurred when people spent money on something that was personally important to them.
To compare this finding with past research, the current study also asked participants to indicate to what extent their purchase was an experience or a material item. As in past research, participants did report higher well-being from experiences. However, when the researchers looked at both factors together, they found that how much a purchase reflected intrinsic goals explained more of the differences in well-being than whether something was material or experiential.
So, what does this research mean for our spending habits? Olaya Moldes Andrés, lecturer at Cardiff University and the study’s author, points out that we’re under a lot of pressure to spend money these days; just think about the number of targeted ads you see each time you open social media. However, this pressure to spend has a downside: In past research, Moldes Andrés has found that people who are exposed to more materialistic messages have lower well-being.
Before purchasing something, she recommends pausing to think about the reason for our purchase, and what use we will get out of it. If we’re spending money on trying to impress people or project a certain image (in other words, extrinsic goals), the purchase may not actually be worth it.
So, next time you’re planning to buy something, take a moment to think about whether it’s something you’re buying because you feel it’s what’s expected of you—or whether it’s truly something that you want.