In contrast to decades of research reporting surprisingly weak relationships between consumption and happiness, recent findings suggest that money can indeed increase happiness if it is spent the “right way” (e.g., on experiences or on other people).
Drawing on the concept of psychological fit, we extend this research by arguing that individual differences play a central role in determining the “right” type of spending to increase well-being. In a field study using more than 76,000 bank-transaction records, we found that individuals spend more on products that match their personality, and that people whose purchases better match their personality report higher levels of life satisfaction.
This effect of psychological fit on happiness was stronger than the effect of individuals’ total income or the effect of their total spending. A follow-up study showed a causal effect: Personality-matched spending increased positive affect. In summary, when spending matches the buyer’s personality, it appears that money can indeed buy happiness.
According to Dunn and Norton, recent research on happiness suggests that the most satisfying way of using money is to invest in others. This can take a seemingly limitless variety of forms, from donating to a charity that helps strangers in a faraway country to buying lunch for a friend.
Witness Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the wealthiest people in the world. On a March day in 2010, they sat in a diner in Carter Lake, Iowa, and hatched a scheme. They would ask America‘s billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to charity. Buffet decided to donate 99 percent of his, saying, “I couldn‘t be happier with that decision.”
Dunn and Norton further discuss how businesses such as PepsiCo and Google and nonprofits such as DonorsChoose.org are harnessing these benefits by encouraging donors, customers, and employees to invest in others. When Pepsi punted advertising at the 2010 Superbowl and diverted funds to supporting grants that would allow people to “refresh” their communities, for example, more public votes were cast for projects than had been cast in the 2008 election. Pepsi got buzz, and the company‘s in-house competition also offering a seed grant boosted employee morale.
Authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton draw on years of quantitative and qualitative research to explain how money can buy happiness, but only if we spend it in certain ways.
The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).
Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge & Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton