The Cost of Happiness: How Buying Less Can Make You Happy
We have all heard the adage you can’t buy happiness, and while a spending spree may seem like a fun way to spend an afternoon, increasing studies have found that this old adage may actually be correct. So how can we buy less, and how can buying less make you happy?
When broken down, the amounts that we are spending every year are staggering. The average American spends $1,700 a year on new clothes. In the UK the numbers don’t fare much better, with the average person spending just over $23 a week ($1,196 a year) on clothing and footwear. One study in the US found that when all non-essential spending was added up, the yearly per person average came in at an astronomical $18,000.
The thing is though, this $18,000 out of our bank accounts doesn’t seem to be making us happier. This growing shopping list is not increasing our life satisfaction.
Mind over Money
Happiness is a complicated subject. It is something that almost everyone in the world pursues and people find in various and personalised ways. Happiness means something different to all of us. Throughout history, people have tried to define happiness and forge a simplified road to achieving it.
Paulo Coelho urged us to ‘collect moments not things’, Henry David Thoreau told us ‘I make myself rich by making my wants few,’ even Marcus Aurelius claimed that ‘life’s happiness depends on the quality of your thoughts.’
More recently, the Pursuit of Happiness project has identified its own take on achieving happiness with its 7 Habits of Happy People:
- Relationships – Sharing personal experiences with close friends is one of the habits of happiness. Social connection has been found in numerous studies to boost well-being, with people that have higher levels of social connections found to be generally happier.
2. Acts of kindness- Helping others makes us happier. Those who care for others or volunteer in a meaningful way can often achieve a sense of purpose and life satisfaction.
3. Physical wellbeing- The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. Looking after your body can help to improve your mental wellbeing.
4. Flow – Striving to reach a goal or engaging in an activity that we enjoy and is a fit for our personal skills can help lead to a state of greater happiness.
5. Spiritual engagement and meaning – Some studies have found that a relationship with spirituality or religion can increase happiness levels in some people.
6. Signature strengths and virtues- We are happy when we are doing what we love. Finding our unique strengths and interest and exercising these is one of the habits of happy people.
7. Positive mindset- Practicing a mindset of gratitude and optimism helps to grow a habit of happiness and put a focus on what is good in life.
From the ideas of Marcus Aurelius to the words of Thoreau to the habits of the Pursuit of Happiness Project, what all of these have in common is that they define happiness as something that cannot be bought. A consumer mindset to buy less stuff can help lead to increased well-being and happiness levels.
Time and time again, studies have shown, you can’t buy happiness!
Buying to be Seen
The relationship between a consumer mindset and consumer spending is built on a range of factors. However, one consistent driving force is a consumer’s desire to create an impression on their social circle. People use things like the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, and the technology they use to signal to the world their social and financial status.
As trends in the modern world rapidly change, consumers feel pressure to buy more to maintain the message of their social status, even to the detriment of their bank balance or mental well-being. In the modern world, self-esteem and consumption have been tied together.
Social media further complicates this problem with its promotion of consumerism and the desire to always be ‘seen’. This is particularly prominent in the young adult and teenage sector, with one study finding that 41% of 18-25-year-olds feel pressure to wear a different outfit every time they go out.
This attitude of consuming as a result of social pressure can perpetuate feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. Studies have found that those that put a high price on materialism as part of their self-esteem experience a detrimental impact on self-esteem in the long run.
The Short-Lived Impact of Retail Therapy
Now, I know what you are thinking, when I buy something, I feel good. This is because buying things triggers a dopamine release. Sometimes dubbed ‘the happy hormone’, dopamine drives feelings of pleasure and acts as part of the body’s reward system. Other things that are known to produce a dopamine hit include eating, and falling in love.
So, how can buying less make you happy if buying things literally releases the happiness hormone?
The dopamine boost of retail therapy and impulse purchases is short-lived. This means that while it may create a temporary mood boost, it isn’t going to lead to lasting happiness.
The Danger of Addiction
Retail therapy gets even more dangerous when it comes to addiction. If the brain begins to crave that dopamine high triggered from spending, then this can lead to shopping addiction and poor financial strategies resulting in debt. Easily available credit cards have further increased the risk of running into debt in the shopping mall. It is estimated that the average UK household has racked up an incredible £2,000 of credit card debt.
Compulsive shoppers that develop an addiction, generally shop in times of emotional distress. This can create a self-fulfilling cycle. Debt and strains on relationships resulting from the negative impact of shopping addiction can lead to further feelings of distress and in turn, further spending.
A Decluttered Mind
Buying more stuff doesn’t only have an effect on our wallet. The more we buy the more things we have, and the more things we have, the more cluttered our homes become.
Unfortunately, unnecessary clutter and a positive frame of mind are not two things that go together well. Being surrounded by clutter has been linked to negative impacts on psychological wellbeing, including increased levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Clutter can also lead to problems with focus and working memory issues, as well as weight gain and insomnia.
To make a bad situation worse, clutter has been associated with physical as well as mental health hazards. Clutter can accumulate dust, grime, and mould that negatively impacts the air quality of a room. The effect of clutter on air quality can be particularly harmful to those that suffer from asthma or breathing problems.
By choosing to buy less stuff and engaging with a conscious consumer mindset, you are less likely to accumulate large levels of clutter. As result, this lowers the risk of the associated physical and mental health impacts.
Buy Less for the Climate
For many of us, the climate crisis weighs heavily on our minds. In a recent survey of people between 16 and 25, 60% said that they were extremely worried about climate change, and two-thirds reported feelings of anxiousness, fear, and sadness.
It is well-known that overconsumption has a direct impact on the world around us. From filling landfills to driving overproduction, the more we buy, the higher cost the environment pays. As such, fostering an environment of reduced consumption plays directly into lowering our footprint.
Often referred to as ‘Shop stop’, the idea of simply buying nothing has been gaining traction in recent years, with environmentalist activist Greta Thunberg one of its many supporters.
Studies have even found that buying less to help the environment can lead to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. A study involving people in grassroots climate movements found that those that made the independent decision to lower their consumption reported greater lifestyle satisfaction than those that didn’t adopt a reduced consumption mindset.
Research has even found that the decision to buy less stuff had a greater positive impact on mental wellbeing than other environmentally positive actions such as buying environmentally friendly products.
But don’t worry, if you really need that wardrobe update check out our article on How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe.
Buy Experiences Not Things
The hard-earned cash that we are handing over for material possessions can quite simply be better spent. Research has shown that experiences trigger greater levels of happiness and excitement than material possessions. Experience spending suffers less peer comparison than materialistic consumption. It creates a lasting impact on who we are and the excitement of it doesn’t fade like the excitement of owning a thing does.
Positive social behaviour and developing relationships are known to boost happiness levels. As social experience can help to grow relationships, the positive impacts of experiences can be compounded.
Buying less stuff can make you happy because it allows you greater opportunities to invest in experiences. Experience spending is more commonly linked with social behaviour, identity, and connection, all positive points for mental health. Put simply, experiences make us happier than things.
How Buying Less Can Make you Happy
There is no escaping the fact that the retail world is built on a model of overconsumption. But, this habit of overspending doesn’t make us happy. By choosing to buy less we can invest in the experiences that will stay with us, help the climate, and improve our financial situation.
For more on how our overspending is affecting the climate, and people and animals, see our article Why is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Important: What Everyone Should Know.
In a world where we are pressured to always buy more, it can be empowering to choose to buy less. In the end, no matter what you buy, you can’t buy happiness.
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