Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

This is Why We Shop When We Don’t Need To

To someone who has drunk the less-is-more Kool-Aid, it’s easy to judge those who shop beyond their needs and financial means. Why do they need so much? Don’t they know what’s going on with our planet? Why would someone rack up credit card debt on something so useless? The answer, so says one study, is that people often shop driven by an earnest belief that the things they buy will make them happier, confident, complete people.

A study called “When Wanting Is Better than Having: Materialism, Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process” sought to get to the heart of why people shop. What author Marsha Richins found was that people expected a whole lot from their purchases. Those surveyed thought a purchase would make them happier–an expectation that was particularly true for people considered materialistic (as determined by a questionnaire within the study).

The driving force behind purchases is what Richins calls “transformation expectation,” which is what it sounds like: people expect their purchases to have a transformative effect on their lives. Richins explains:

The idea that goods can transform consumers pervades marketing practice. Advertisements make both implicit and explicit claims about the transformations that will accrue to buyers (Braun-LaTour and LaTour 2005; Puto and Wells 1984). Indeed, some products are purchased expressly for their transformative powers, including cosmetics, virility aids, hair restoration remedies, and weight loss products, all of which promise a transformation of the physical self. Other products–breath mints and attractive clothing, for example–may enhance consumers’ self-confidence or other self feelings. Some products (a new computer, a GPS device for the car) can make one’s life easier, and others (books, music, or recreational equipment) can greatly add to the pleasure experienced in daily life. Indeed, one can argue that the hope for transformations such as these is the driving force behind the acquisition of many consumer goods.

The study includes several excerpts from those surveyed that articulate the narrative that drives people to buy. One woman thought a dishwasher would be the thing that would improve her standing in the world. She says:

I like my home and kitchen clean, and dirty dishes piled up do not make them look clean, and the moment you open the front door that’s what you see is the kitchen sink. If I don’t do them the first impression anybody, even the mailman, would have is “This lady really needs to get her act together.”

Others thought their purchases wouldn’t just improve their lives, but their relationships. One woman who wanted a larger house said this about her desire:

I’d probably have more room to entertain than I do now. I’d probably want to. I’d probably want to be able to show off, show them my house…. I’d probably have more friends, wouldn’t I?

Another man said this about an in-ground pool he wanted to install:

My daughter would have something to do. It would enhance her life and keep her from being bored and therefore she wouldn’t be complaining to me because she’s bored all the time, and then I’d be happier, less stressed. [Apparently, this man wasn’t aware of the stress of maintaining a pool.]

This promise of improving your looks, confidence, comfort, relationships–your self–made people less averse to debt and mismanaging their money, according to the survey.

There was only one problem: the expectations of those surveyed were not fulfilled. They were actually happier before the purchases than after. The expectation and the desire elicited excitement and euphoria, but the acquisition of the stuff, save for a fleeting climax, failed to live up to the promise.

It should be noted that the transformation expectation was greater in those who were considered materialistic. These people, while excited about the upcoming purchases, were also more likely to worry about making the correct purchase. Non-materialistic subjects were less likely to expect a purchase to make them happy or worry prior to its acquisition.

So what does this all mean?

Two things we can deduce from Richins study:

  1. Happiness comes from within not without. The people who got all psyched about their upcoming purchases generated that excitement without the object. It’s unfortunate that the object didn’t make them any happier, but it’s informative to note that their mental states surrounding the purchases, not the objects purchased, were the progenitors of their happiness. Want a happy life? Focus first on your mental state.
  2. Don’t expect stuff to make you happy. Even for the diehard minimalist, it’s easy to fantasize that an object–either one we want or perhaps one we already have–holds the key to making us better people. It doesn’t (see point #1). We might all do well to place more focus on living a good life (engaging in meaningful work, cultivating relationships, taking care of your health, etc), than acquiring one.

Happy Family Shopping image via Shutterstock

  • Marrena

    I’ve commented here before that I disagree with this sort of thinking. Purchases CAN have a transformative effect on a person’s life. The trick as a smart consumer is figuring out exactly what those purchases are. Advertisers are always lying to us. Finding worthwhile things to buy is one of the reasons I visit this website. One of my transformative purchases was from a recommendation from this website–I bought a merino wool scarf from Outlier, which has really made my winter transit commute much better. And tonight I’m picking up my new commuter bicycle, and I’m hoping that has a transformative effect on my life too. Off the top of my head, things I’ve bought that have made my life significantly better: a Vitamix blender, a Fagor pressure cooker, a washing machine that’s really good at cold water washing (no more laundromat), my Patagonia mini-courier bag, my Nook, my Sonicaire toothbrush. Even some consumables have made my life better, like Origins makeup, Dr. Bronner’s Baby Mild bar soap, and Egyptian Magic Cream. And I’ve bought a lot of durable items, that while not making my life significantly better, have allowed me to cut way back on buying disposable items, like a Kleen Kanteen, a steel waterproof tiffin to take my lunch to work, handkerchiefs, microfiber cloths, Italian canning jars for storing bulk food, Pyrex containers for storing food in the freezer, a mooncup and Glad Rags.

    I can’t imagine a dishwasher not changing a person’s life for the better, unless they live alone. Also good for shrinking one’s carbon footprint. Now it’s true that buying a dishwasher won’t bring a person ultimate happiness, but having more time in their life might help them get closer to their goal.

  • Markus

    Marrena, I think the trick with what you are saying is that you actually do not look at the purchase for happiness, but at a need first and then at what this purchase will do for you as opposed to another purchase (durable vs. cheap, commuter bike vs. car of public transport) as such the option you chose is good for you. If you just consider any purchase that you did not actually consider only out of a need, then the above, I think is true (at least for me)

  • Christopher Tilley

    I partly agree and partly disagree with this article.

    As with a lot of these articles, it’s very general.

    If you think that buying a new pair of jeans is going make X fall in love with you or if you buy an iPhone your social life will improve, then you’re going to be disappointed.

    If you think that buying a dishwasher is going to save you a couple of hours a week that you can use in a different way, then your expectation will be met.

    The key is to match the purchase with the expectation. If you do that, then you’re going to be happier with the result.

  • Maggie

    Happy / better. There is a difference. My life would not be happier or better if I had a dishwasher.

  • clarkbennett

    For me possessions are like a ball and chain that prevent me from moving forward with my life. The happiest I’ve ever been was when all my worldly possessions could fit in the trunk of my car.

    • Babs

      The same is true for me. I have all I ever wanted, a nicely furnished home given to me by a wonderful husband. Or at least I thought I wanted all this although to some it is not much but for me the best time was when I lived in a small camper. I was not a slave to the upkeep of the “things” and spent more time out and about. Too old now to change but wished I had learned this about myself years ago.

  • David Bush

    While we shouldn’t let ourselves be brainwashed into thinking that every purchase will automatically make us happy, we also shouldn’t be shamed into thinking that an object can’t bring us happiness. When I turned 30, I bought an Audi TT. I saw it for the first time in a magazine and knew it was my car. That car made me happy. My spirit would lift a bit each time I looked at it, sat in it, drove it. A sensible, run-of-the-mill, Consumer-Reports-Best-Buy car would have, at best, given me no feeling at all. So if an object speaks to you, and it is within your means, go ahead and add it to your life. There is no shame in it.

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  • “Apparently, this man wasn’t aware of the stress of maintaining a pool.”

    Unless it is a Biofiltered pool, then it would have met their expectations with the bonus features of biodiversity and calming aesthetics of a natural space ^_^

  • Rebecca

    Back in the early ’60s I was a young homemaker with a husband one child. We had furnished our home with cast-offs from our parents. No big deal. That’s what you did back then. Eventually we would buy better furniture. Then I inherited a bit of money – not a lot, but enough to furnish the living room with good furniture and buy a big stereo set. Those of you who are as old as me will remember the stereo set as a huge piece of furniture, not the component parts which eventually gave way to the iPod, etc. I was so excited to be able to furnish our living room with things that would last many years. Wow! All new and comfy and attractive.

    But, as I thought about it, I realized it simply meant that buying things didn’t create lasting happiness. I’ve been a practical shopper ever since. If I need it or simply really want it, I often buy it, but I buy for other reasons, never to generate excitement and certainly not for hoped-for happiness.

  • Michelle

    Isn’t this the point of the Suffocation book? Purchases make us happy for a short while until they become commonplace. This is why experiences make us twice as happy because storytelling helps us relive the happiness.

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  • WithheldName

    My house is probably twice the size of your house – yet I literally don’t use half the space in it. I probably have twice as many new clothes as you do – but I don’t wear half of them. When my cars were new, they weren’t any more comfortable than they are now. My smartphone us probably newer than yours – yet I don’t take advantage of any of its new features. I probably spend twice as much on groceries (in the form of organic food) as you do – but I doubt it will give one more day of life than you. I have twice as many pairs of shoes as I actually use. I have a new bicycle that isn’t any faster or more reliable than my old one. My furniture is probably twice as expensive as yours – yet it feels no more comfortable.