“Eat, Pray, Love” is not just a best-selling book and movie blockbuster, it is a worldwide phenomenon and a bit of an enigma. The story, about how a woman’s experiences on a journey around the world lead to her spiritual, emotional and physical happiness and fulfillment, has generated hundreds of merchandise spin-offs. Usually the stuff of sci-fi and children’s films, related marketing and merchandising campaigns for “Eat, Pray, Love” are promoting clothing, jewelry, books, candles, music and other goods aimed at providing that same sort of spiritual and emotional need. But can buying stuff tied to a book or movie—especially one about experiences—really make you happy? Isn’t materialism supposed to be evil?
Mason psychologist Todd Kashdan, who studies the science of happiness, says, yes, money can bring you happiness—depending on what and why you’re spending it.
In a 2008 national survey of Americans, 93 percent said people are too focused on working and making money, and 87 percent said living in a materialistic world makes it difficult to teach children morals (Center for a New American Dream, 2008).
“The prejudice and hatred of materialism is widespread. When people hear that buying something can make them happy, they become very skeptical very quickly,” says Kashdan.
Kashdan says that there is one way to sidestep these automatic, reflexive reactions to money and materialism: look at the motive for the purchase. “Think of materialism as a means to boost self-esteem,” he says. “A woman wearing a fur coat and a man driving a mint condition 1963 Corvette feed our stereotype of self-enhancing, materialistic people. When people spend money to acquire tangible objects for themselves they get nothing more than a short-term boost of happiness. Soon after, they need their next ‘fix.’”
However, if we aim to purchase and live through meaningful events, we can find longer lasting satisfaction, Kashdan says. “Consider a family saving up money to go horseback riding together at a dude ranch or a romantic couple dining once a month at an exquisite seafood restaurant. Money is being spent on experiences and memories that can be savored. What researchers have shown is that when people spend money on experiences, especially when they include other people, the boosts to happiness are more intense and last longer.”
“This is why the mindful protagonist of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ found profound happiness through experiences, and without money, she would have never been able to afford those experiences.”
Still not convinced? Then how about a little generosity—spend your money on someone else. Kashdan says this kind of purchase might give you the best boost of all.
“Spending money on other people as a sign of generosity or love has a more intense, lasting impact than spending money on the self,” he says.