Will this purchase ‘bring me joy’? A practical guide to shopping deliberately

Good news for happiness hunters: a recent study sheds some much-needed light on what kind of purchases legitimately increase our happiness.

It feels like the whole world has been watching Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up on Netflix. If you’ve missed it, it’s a masterclass in decluttering your home – and your life. And, in-between emptying closets and running to thrift shops, more people than ever are asking themselves, “what brings me joy?”

That, it turns out, is an important question to ask yourself – especially when it comes to understanding and controlling your finances.

While Kondo’s show takes on the stockpiles of stuff lots of us have lying around (please don’t look in my crawlspace), it also begs the question – how can we tell if something we’re about to buy will give us joy long-term? Will this purchase actually make me happy, or is it just fuel for Tidying Up Season 2?

Experiences vs. products

Psychologists have long agreed that experiential purchases (think concert tickets or a weekend getaway) make folks happier than buying another shirt or a new watch. But – and it’s a big but – there are some kinds of materials that straddle the line between experiences and stuff. That same study shows us that experiential products actually provide the same level of happiness as experiences.

Consider it this way – sometimes, objects connect us to experiences. For instance, if you want to experience more music in your life, maybe learning an instrument would scratch the itch better than a concert ticket. The key difference is what kind of satisfaction you’re looking for.

3 kinds of satisfaction

It kills me to say it, but I think The Rolling Stones were wrong – you can get satisfaction, if you know which type you need. Generally speaking, there are three types: identity expression (a purchase that reflects what I value), competence (a purchase that helps me use or learn skills), and relatedness (a purchase that brings me closer to others).

So, let’s use the “I need more music in my life” scenario. If at the root of my need is a desire to express myself and make use of my skills, maybe buying an instrument and lessons is better for me than concert tickets. If the root of my need is feeling connected with folks, then going to a concert with my friends is probably the right move.

If you know what you’re really looking for – the want behind your want – you’re much more likely to make purchases that actually increase your happiness. So, try asking yourself:

  • What need am I looking to fulfil – identity expression, competence, or relatedness?
  • Does this purchase check one or more of those boxes?
  • And, most importantly, does the purchase make me incur debt to a degree that the happiness effect is lost? Because if it does – DON’T BUY IT. Sometimes it’s alright to charge something, but if you’re pushing your limits and are feeling stressed about it, shopping isn’t going to make you feel much better, no matter what the purchase is.

They say you can’t buy happiness. To a degree, that’s true. But, if you know what kind of happiness and satisfaction you’re looking for, you can certainly make better choices on how you spend your disposable income. And, for me at least, knowing that certainly ‘brings me joy.’