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April 15th, 2010
12:08 PM ET

Materialistic people less happy, less liked

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Let's say you get a check for $50 for your birthday. Would you spend it on something material, like a watch or a bracelet, or an experience, like a day at the beach or nice dinner?

Research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than material possessions. That's because we become accustomed to objects - after a few weeks or months, that shiny new car is just a means of getting around - but remembering activities can give us pleasure indefinitely. Read more about those studies

Now, pioneers of those ideas have demonstrated that people who pursue happiness through experiences are better liked by others than those who are more materialistic. Their new study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Leaf Van Boven, psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues gave undergraduate students a national survey, which they used in five experiments to test their ideas.

In one of them, participants were told about people who had bought a material object or a life experience. Researches found that when the undergraduates learned about someone making a material purchase, this caused them to like that person less than a different person who purchased something experiential.

The authors concluded that people tend to have negative stereotypes about materialistic people. Participants asked to describe a materialistic person often used words such as "selfish" and "self-centered." When they described a experiential person, adjectives such as "altruistic," "friendly" and "outgoing" came up, the authors said.

Study co-author Thomas Gilovich, professor and chairman of the psychology department at Cornell University, has pointed out in the past that comparing recent material purchases with friends generates more jealousy than trading stories about recent vacations. Material purchases can be compared physically - one person's television can be objectively bigger and brighter than her friend's - whereas each experience is unique and precious in its own way to the individual.

For those who by nature enjoy buying things, the authors recommend a change of pace. Given that experiences not only bring more happiness, but also social approval, a materialistic person would benefit from investing more in experiences and less in objects, the theory goes.

Watch Van Boven discuss the research online here.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (207 Responses)
  1. bleah!

    How about a companion study to go with this one: Do we care if others like us or not? Anybody got grant money for this 😉

    April 16, 2010 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. David

    I never understood materialistic people. One obsession Americans seem to have is cars. To me a car is just a way to get around town, transportation. I see these guys who buy a fancy car, get fancy rims, fancy stereo, etc. I think these people are stupid! I am not jealous at all I just find the consumption they put into their cars is a foolish waste of precious time. Another stupid thing is people who are single or married with no kids who buy an enormous expensive house and then they work all day and never get to enjoy it. Stupid! I would love to have a lot of money but I prefer to spend it on vacations, going out to eat, going out to a cool nightclub, going on a roadtrip, etc. Just going out and buying a bunch of useless stuff is actually boring to me. I do like to buy books, music or movies. At least I can do something with those material things.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mike

    @ mike who said, "This article suggests that if one is successful and can afford nice things then you are indeed a bad person. Articles like this are just intended to make people that are less successful feel better about themselves."

    Nooooooo...that's up to you to decide. Science is descriptive, not proscriptive. No where does it say that materialistic people are bad...what it says is that people, in general, have negative stereotypes about materialistic people...nothing more.

    Trying to stretch that conclusion to anything more is inappropriate.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Francie

    I would have to agree with the article. From personal experience. I have received the greatest happiness in experiences. I recently made a materialistic purchase of a car. I do love it, but it doesn't make me happy as my experiences did.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. ann

    Mike- the article does not at all say that if you can afford nice things that you are a bad person. It is referring to the constant pursuit of unnecessary stuff also known as materialism. You just sound like a douche bag and I bet no one is jealous of you for any reason. The most inherently happy people I know are the ones that keep it simple.....Family, Friends, and spending time with both.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rock

    I'm glad I'm not mike's neighbor. And it's Sinatra.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Melissa

    I'm sorry but thats a load of garbage or the Republicans wouldn't have so bloody much power even when they're out of power. Materialism is considered a great thing in this country. Better than anything else. If it wasn't most of the population wouldn't be freaking out like children at the idea of ANYTHING even remotely socialist while totally ignoring the things in the country that are already socialist. If materialism wasn't a considered a great thing, the Tea Party wouldn't exist and the Republicans would be relegated to the third party instead of the Independents.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jessica

    I dont know, this survey or whatever makes it too simple. Lots of "material purchases" can translate into experiences...and subsequently lots of "experiences" can wind up being just material purchases (such as too lazy to cook dinner, so instead you go out to eat). I think the reality to happiness is balance. So is this article telling me not to buy the house of my dreams that im currently buying, and instead go to Vegas with my friends in June? Cuz that would just be a stupid thing to think. If you need a new car...whats problematic about getting one you really really enjoy and like? I have a friend who's that "tech gadget" guy...he has to buy EVERYTHING that apple comes out with, the minute its available. he is that "materialistic" person this article appears to be concerned with – or that others apparently hate because of his obsession with apple products. I wont lie, there's a part of me that is annoyed with this part of him...I can never quite tell just how much happiness/enjoyment he derives from the actual product itself – or just by having the latest and greatest, first. But perhaps, its not for me to decide?

    April 16, 2010 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. J. M. Pelland

    I think the article touches on some very interesting points, but I believe it's important to recognize the distinction between material possessions and material needs. There are simply some things you must purchase in order to live. I don't really think the studies were concerned with those type of purchases, but I think it's important to note that a significant portion of the people in this world struggle with the affordability of every day life. It's unreasonable to assume everyone who gets a $50 birthday card is divided between going on a trip or buying something new. Many people take money like that and put it straight towards their rent or health insurance premiums. It seems to me there should have been a third category of questions asked to the study participants about how they'd feel about a person who took that money and used it to buy food for their children. I'm sure the reactions would have hovered somewhere around sympathy and respect.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Bob in PA

    Ah yes, everyone should have same same in life. No tatoos, no piercings, same clothes, same pay and same basic house. Then no jealosy just social and economic justice.

    I think Steve from Michigan is the only one who actually understands the topic of inner peace and happiness. The writer however is really just promoting how to spend money and and enjoy it longer.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Rock

    "Every man's happiness is his own responsibility."
    — Abraham Lincoln

    April 16, 2010 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. laura

    Actually when I think back my best memories are of camping with my parents. My trip halfway across Canada with my best friend when we were 16. Living in Barbados for a year with my boyfriend. I'm older now and have three kids, but I wouldn't trade those memories for any car or television.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. ccollina

    I'm aware that material things will not make a person happy, but I've noticed that some people tend to act jealous, if you mention a new purchase (car, big screen TV, etc). Instead of being happy for you, they think you are showing off. I sometimes think it is their head problem, especially when you are only responding to their question of "What's new in your life?" One doesn't even have to brag to get this jealous reaction. You find out about the jealous reaction years or months later, sometimes through a 3rd party.

    I agree experiences have a better reception and make for happy memories. I always make sure I include people in my photos, instead of just shooting landscapes and landmarks.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. JohnH

    Try the same experiment on 30-40 year-olds. College kids are notoriously self-righteous. Wait til they start looking around for a husband/provider for their (future) children. The man-childs who have eschewed $ and have lower paying careers will get quite a wake-up call.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Lisa

    I completely disagree with everything in this article. Mind you, these are my own opinions, but when I see someone spending a lot of money on vacations or an expensive dinner, it kind of makes me angry (and jealous, of course) because to me, that's wasted money. The experience lasts as long as the dinner, or what have you. Whereas, if someone buys a new car, or a piece of furniture, I think of that as putting money to good use. Even a video game system. They will get extended enjoyment out of that. I see vacations as something people do when they have extra money to blow, and if they don't have it, it's irresponsible.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Frank G

    Having gone from being extremely poor to very well off, I can tell you that one of the biggest half truths told to poor people is that money can't buy happiness. While anyone can be unhappy, having a lot of money gives you an incredible amount of options and lots of time to explore the things in life that really interest you. Not having to worry about money or paying the bills lets you concentrate on enjoying life which makes it a heck of a lot easier to be happy.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. JD

    The problem with this study is, we are not seeing the whole picture. Are the materialistic people who are buying the items buying them for appearance's sake? Or are they buying them because the item will make them happy. Meaning, yes I just bought a shiney new Lexus, but why? Was it because the car has creature comforts that i am not used to having and its about experiencing the luxury. OR is it that i am buying the Lexus because I think people will look at me and go "ooooh he got a Lexus". Its the same thing with the person who bought a xbox 360. It was for the 360 experience.. to play games. Not the 'ooh look at what I got' flaunt. The study i sright with the premise that if you are buying stuff to 'keep up with the Joneses, you might as well not buy it at all'. Money cant buy you happiness if you are not buying stuff for the right reasons. And yes, there is a difference.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Lou

    All you have to do is visit and get to know people who live in poverty. The family life of those I know is rich with love. This may be a generalization, but I think lives of many people who struggle financially speak volumes about what is important and essential in life. Spiritually speaking, many theologians and mystics have addressed this topic. Tolle', one of my favorite spiritual writers, compares the attainment of possessions to chasing mirages. Once you get what you think will make you happy, there is another mirage in the distance that you desire. Material attainment gives, at best, temporary pleasure and perhaps the 'illusion' of status that one is better than another because they have a bigger house or better car. But, perhaps these are simply nothing more than illusions and have nothing to do with lasting happiness.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. mike

    Judging by your post mike, you were most definitely on the little league team that did NOT win the trophy.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Sam

    Must be why Americans are so hated by people in other parts of the world.

    And to the person that said they can sell their material possessions and get part of their money back, your possessions can also be taken away from you and you get nothing. You can't take my education or my life experiences away from me.

    You can have your crap, I'll take a trip, adventure, or even dinner with friends any day over some material things that I don't need.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Papo

    I coulda told you that, Sanjay. Maybe that's why everyone's so miserable these days. All anyone cares about is money and status and choose who they associate with based on such things, usually ending up angry, miserable, divorced, and living dramatic lifestyles.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. CK

    I travel a fair amount and have had many cool experiences, but some people resent that, no matter how I phrase it. I find myself not even telling some people where I've been because I know how they will react.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. shakeitoff

    thanks Steve from Michigan & Mr. Schweitzer – so true, so true

    April 16, 2010 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Citizen from NY

    I agree with Mike above. My problem is a sister who is jealous of me because of what I have, which isn't much as I live on a secretary's salary. But all my working life, I worked hard to EARN what I have. It is not my fault she made bad choices in her life and she is unhappy and takes it out on me. I'd help her out as much as I can, but I also have to consider what is right for me, and I can't keep her hand full every time she has it out. It's not being selfish either. I am entitled to what I have because I worked hard and earned it.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. snake

    I agree with the findings. Growing up poor, I always thought that happiness was what you had and would spend what I earned or was given as a gift on something material. But nobody cared except me and I allowed material possesions and the desire to have them seperated me from friends and created jealousy in my heart. Now that I have matured and have my own kids, I find a walk in the woods with my family and dogs is far more rewarding than a possession. Our family trips and long weekends are memories and talking points when we are together more than our new fridge, car, furniture, etc.....I honestly can't remember one of the objects that I had to have, but I remember times spent with family or experiences.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    This article is so true. However, in my life I've found people who are extremely wealthy to be more liked because they don't flaunt their wealth like the wannabes who are obsessed with material things.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. J in Fla

    This is totally true. I have very little to show for my 38 years of life. But I have incredible stories to tell about places I’ve been, things I’ve done and individuals I’ve met.

    And now I’m dating a very beautiful young lady who is unbelievably materialistic. She is also on a heavy regiment of anti-depressants – sad really.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. mike

    i find it interesting how many people have taken this study as comment about his/her own lifestyle. I think the idea was simply that in the US people tend to appreciate people who are more interested in living than in owning.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. citizenUSA

    This is stupid. Too subjective. I did not see the word jealous as an adjective used by those who have opinions on "materialistic" people. Sure, no one likes some jerk going around saying look at all the stuff I have. Happiness could be the EXPERIENCE I get from driving a slamming new car or to just be out driving on a beautiful day in an old car. So I guess then experiences can make you happy because of materialistic things you have.. Is there any standard of measure for the level of, or amount of time for, having happiness? Can't I be happy for a few months with my new car? Once the new car feel is over I'm not less happy in general. I might be specifically to the car wishing it could stay brand new but that would not make me unhappy because it's not. Getting a birthday card makes me happy but am I supposed to carry that happines through life because I experienced getting a card? (I guess that scenario cover both being happy and having an experience). Money and materialistic things can create experiences that make one happy. If you have money and stuff but don't do anything with them, you can't have an experience that might make you happy. If I didn't have money or materialistic things yet find happiness in all other things, you might be Ghandi reincarnated.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. RC Barcelona

    the materialistic society we live in today is unfulfilling. Having spent several weeks in the past two years traveling around the Mediterranean has meant being broke since, but I wouldnt trade those memories for anything material.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Cat

    We all need to remember, "The best things in life are free." Material things buy happiness for a very short time, then it's on to the next "big" thing. Pretty soon it's never enough. You keep buying and buying to keep yourself happy – which becomes a vicious circle. Sad for those who don't learn that lesson. We, as a society, must stop being gluttons and re-learn what is truly important in our lives. Which are NOT things!

    April 16, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Andrew

    Although I live in new york and have to put up with materialistic insecure twits every day this is study is too simplistic to come to any real conclusions.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. rick

    what a horrible culture that other people need to tell us to stop buying things. of course materials themselves offer little in our own personal growth. a meaningful life requires at least some sort of contemplation, purpose and self actualization. we've just completely lost that in a world where comfort is king.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Brian

    The author seems to be confusing materialism with nihilism. Our whole society is based on consumerism. A recent Pope called America a "nihilistic society."

    April 16, 2010 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. David

    Buy groceries for a needy person. That'll give you satisfaction forever!

    April 16, 2010 at 12:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Kevin

    The genuine happiness comes when you give up your attachement to materials, anger, lust, greed, jeaousy, desires, selffishness, and so on. A lot of people will say if it is the case life will be boring. It's not true at all. You don't have to lose anything materially. What I am talking about is your heart and mind nature. When you lose the bad thought from your mind, what replaces it is "compassion". That's the genuine inner peace. You can give it a try by following the pricinples of "Truthfulness-Compassion-Tolerence" in any and everthing you do and say in your daily life. When you can overcome the material lose or embarrassment you may incur from doing so, you will achieve the genuine inner peace that will last a life time. Give it a try.

    Remember "Truthfulness-Compassion-Tolerence"

    April 16, 2010 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. ABB123

    I understand the joy a fun experience can bring, I mean, I save money every year to go on wonderful vacations. But I also receive tons of joy year round from certain material things I've bought. That expensive handbag that may seem like a stupid buy to others makes me happy every day that I wear it, whereas experiences happen, and then they're gone. Sure you have memories, but having a physical thing that brings me joy every day lasts longer than a fun night out at the movies with friends.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. louisiana fred

    whether it is materialistic or experiential, i feel the joy is still
    the same. by buying materialistically, the event is transferred
    to and by experiential means...in other words, you enjoyed
    the idea of the object, whether you like it for a month or even
    longer....

    April 16, 2010 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Mahagwa

    I agree with 2 people on this site..you can buy something material and share with others/ you need materialistic things to enjoy experiences/ and especially Mike..you hit it on the head.
    Bottom Line - The world has become congested with haters. Everyone wants to be better than everyone else, but very, very few are ready and willing to put in the work to achieve. The only reason material things elicit hating is simply because they are seen, visible. If you see me walk down the street, you have no idea that I spent the past week in Barbados with5 beuatiful women. But if you see me riding down the street on my shiny new donkey, you see the donkey and instantly you wish you had my donkey instead of your obstinate mule.
    It is sad that it is now a SIN to succeed. Those who have never excelled have no idea the amount of work and effort that goes into being good. They believe that they can sit on their lazy behind and things will come to them; yet when the STRIVING ones experience nice things and own nice things and achieve greatness, the LAZY, SORRY ones hate.
    Get a life people, stop hating. If you want what I have or have accomplished, then put in the time and earn it. F%$ all this hippie B.S. It is starting to seem like the 60s again...

    April 16, 2010 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Robert

    Mike,

    The method they used in the sixties clearly failed. You use a capital I not lower case i when refurring to one's self. Clearly working harder didn't help you. Grow up, the article had nothing to do with what you posted. Infact, do I hear a bit of a guilty conscious in there?

    April 16, 2010 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. aaron

    it always amazes me that there are studies that come to a conclusion that is really common sense. anybody that truly loves life knows the "results" of this study already. i don't own a TV because as soon as i have 400 to buy one, i would buy a plane ticket instead. experience, experience, experience

    April 16, 2010 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. truth

    What a biased article! Since man was known to set foot on earth, it is a materialistic object or device which makes him or her stand out in a crowd of peers. Without that object or device, what is there to talk about? Our clothing are an object. Our shoes are an object. Our homes are an object. Our toilets are an object. These are materialistic devices which assists us with our daily living. It also brings us joy. Having too much, on the other hand, is psychotic and identifiable in the DSM-V. That's when an individual needs to be counseled or medicated.

    What is an experience without having a connection with a personal object? There is none. How can a group of friends have an amazing and peaceful experience camping outdoors without having proper gears, tools, and devices? How can a group of friends have an amazing night out in the city without having to spend money, which is obviously an object and materialistic?

    If you, the author, give up everything you have, how would you be happy? Will you survive the cold without a jacket? Will you survive without having to buy necessary items – such as food?

    Without my $30 outdoor grill from Walmart and a $50 digital camera from Costco, I would not have had an amazing experience with friends last summer. Without my $1200 plasma tv, I would not have had parties with friends and families during football season. Without my $7000 car, I would have had the opportunity to transport myself to work and social events.

    In life, there needs to be a sense of pride in oneself. Those who do not love themselves tend to look for materialistic objects to satisfy their hunger for affection. "To be loved is to love thyself."

    I would challenge the author to film herself engaging in a 3 month reality show of having nothing except $1 allowance to live on per day. There is no amenities (i.e. soap, electricity, cell phone, internet, tv, etc) included. She will only be allowed to have a few pieces of cleaned clothing to start with.

    I bet I would win.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. nell

    I strongly agree. My husband buys things to make him feel good. Like any other sickness this is serious. My husband once bought a $3,000 dollar watch because of the mood he was in. After he purchased the watch he was deeply grieved...Purchasing things seems to make him feel better for a while. I talk to him about his purchases but he cannot see that he is a materialistic person. Only God will be able to change this behavior. Yes, he has seen the Dr.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Penguinn

    How did this study account for the acquisition of something like art?
    Art IS an experience and support of the arts enables artists to create more.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. ak

    Who cares what people think! I love to buy nice things and treat myself every now and then. You love me, or you don't. Maybe they are just jealous. :-). I'm super happy person with my Louie purse and $ 300 designer jeans.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Rebel

    I kinda like both. I want that shinny gold watch and vacation. hehehe

    April 16, 2010 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. David

    I totally agree with Kyle Law and Mike, SMSgt, USAF Retired. Thank you Kyle Law and Mike for sharing your thoughts. This article is baseless and does not represent the overall population of this universe.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Michelle

    I think it comes back to balance between material possessions and experiences. Some are better at it than others but everyone can improve. I was made fun by multiple very much materialistic people about wanting to spend a day at Disney. Waste of money. I don't think so. Memories that last a lifetime. You get to meet and interact with people that you would not have otherwise. If you go in with a negative attitude then you will have a negative experience. Selling stuff – do you get back what you paid into it? You lose money. It's a negative investment vehicle. You don't really have the experience b/c most possessions are solitary ventures. - It comes down to balance.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. PDXCubFan

    I love articles where people project their defintion of happiness on others.

    Live and let live.

    And anyone who wants a ride in my 02 Viper, my 73 Porsche 911, my 66 Mercury Cyclone, 06 Porsche Cayman, or 09 Challenger...let me know.

    April 16, 2010 at 12:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. PinkKitty

    I have to agree with some of the above posters- it's harder to be jealous of an 'experience, than it is an object that may add to someone elses status. Easier to judge others and say they're 'selfish' or 'self-centered', than it is to admit, even to yourself, that you're merely envious of their good fortune. If owning things made one less popular- our society wouldn't be so obsessed with what the rich and/or famous do. Less liked? That makes sense- less fulfiled- hardly. Not everyone has the time, or the lack of responsibilty needed to flit off and 'experience' something just for the sake of being able to say we've been there, done that. Take skydiving, for example; it's mostly a lot of anticipation, and a very short trip down. If you're lucky, it's also a safe one. I have too many depending on me to afford the luxury of "stupid and pointless" thrill seeking. But I collect vintage jewelry like there's no tomorrow; and it gives me a LOT of pleasure; researching it, refurbishing some of it in terrible condition, and wearing it. I'm hardly dissatisfied with my lot in life, or my acquisitions. But if it pacifies others to think so- good for them.

    April 16, 2010 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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