happiness meaning science

Investing in Peace of Mind: How Spending Money Improves happiness

hands gracefully offering a pile of dollar notes - spending money in a way that makes you happy
New research shows how we are saving and spending money affects our mental health more dramatically than previously thought. But learning to embrace our emotional responses to spending may provide the key to a happier life.

Our relationship with money is one of complexities, and often highly personal emotions. We may wish we were capable of making the rational choice. When it comes to managing our personal finances, in reality, it is rarely so straightforward. But, as wider research happens on this subject. We are beginning to piece together a more precise picture of exactly how our interactions with the world of finance can affect us mentally. And, perhaps surprisingly, what we believe to be the responsible choice is not always the most beneficial.

There is a growing body of evidence which explains the connection between our spending habits and mental health. The state of our personal finances and spending habits plays an active role in determining our overall mental health and our well-being in other areas of life. As we seek to balance our needs and our wants, it may be valuable to consider some of the many ways in which our personal spending choices may be influencing our state of mind. Also, whether our habits are a positive or a negative influence on our quality of life.

The Psychology of Money

There is a popularly held belief that our interactions with and attitudes towards money are psychologically hard-wired. That we may be a spender or a saver; a conservative or a risk-taker. And there is convincing evidence to suggest that this is precisely the case. Our financial instincts operate within the same fundamental patterns as our impulses to manage other lifestyle essentials.

Professor Glenn D Wilson alludes to this phenomenon with the interesting observation that our behaviour towards money “Has commonalities with food, which might suggest an evolutionary origin for our craving [for wealth]. He notes that, when our appetite is stimulated by the scent of nearby food, our economic instincts become equally hungry. We become more inclined to horde, and less likely to spend.

Equally, risk-averse individuals may simply be behaving in accordance to built-in traits. The region of the brain called the insula is active in the processing emotional responses. As well as associating stimuli with previous adverse reactions. Individuals with a more active insula have been found to respond to the experience of spending large sums of money in the same way as they would react to pain, or to a disgusting smell.

Wants and Needs: the different forms of spending

Due to these previously-acknowledged findings, traditional thinking has just classed us as spenders or savers. Which deduced that our attraction or aversion to spending was a matter of innate neurological make-up. But recent investigations studied the impact of different forms of spending. They have demonstrated that not all spending is equal:

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).” (Matz, et al.in).

Understanding the different forms of economic activity is a necessary step towards learning how the psychology of money could be affecting our own peace of mind. A report by the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge sought to identify the psychological impact of qualitative factors within our spending habits, as opposed to simply the amount spent.

Taking a closer look.

Developing this point further, an article published by the University of California at Berkeley seeks to establish distinct forms of spending. The objective is to learn the psychological impact of each form. Every transaction divides into one of four expenses. Firstly either as a fixed or variable outgoing and of which both classes sub-divide into sets that are our “wants” and our “needs”.

While our Fixed needs are all of those outgoings that could be “the cost of living”. Such as bills, grocery, transportation, and other recurring charges that we need to cover. Our fixed wants are regular treats that we award ourselves in everyday life. These could include a cup of coffee on the way to work or a Friday night take-out. Together, these forms of recurring purchases will define our basic standard of living on a monthly basis.

However, data shows that we quickly grow accustomed to these purchases as a new, baseline standard of living. Although reducing these expenses may not make us happier, there is also no marked long-term improvement in our well-being when we make such purchases, either. Instead, fixed wants are more effective psychological rewards when they only occasionally happen. Not when they form part of a regular spending habit.

What happens when our needs and wants change?

In contrast, Variable needs describe the infrequent or one-off purchases that are, nevertheless, mandatory. From travel visas to health insurance; vehicle repairs to items for a child’s education. Variable needs are the expenses that motivate the saver in all of us. Our peace of mind relies upon knowing that we have the financial resources to cover the unexpected. There is substantial evidence to suggest that these economic safety nets are among the most vital sources of physical and mental well-being.

To improve our well-being through spending, it may be more effective to re-establish our habit-forming fixed desires as “variable wants”. While the saver in us may look at these expenses as frivolous. It is these non-essential, one-off treats that are in fact the most efficient forms for improving our mood and mindset. Despite this, these non-recurring purchases typically account for the smallest total outgoing of expenses when taken on an average annual basis.

Spending Money on a Happier Life

Such evidence would suggest that many of us could potentially be enjoying greater peace of mind if we permitted ourselves to spend more of our money. However, there is a caveat. It is what we are spending money on – rather how much we are spending. That is the truly powerful influencer on our overall quality of life.

By far the most intriguing discovery by this latest round of studies is the realisation what the psychological impact of spending does. It can amplify when economic activity matches the individual’s unique personality traits and motivations. An individual who makes purchasing decisions that best suit their personality shows more enjoy and an increased quality of life. With an increase in personal well-being that is more effective than that observed from other influencers. Such as the overall amount spent, or even the total level of that individual’s income.

The results suggest that for each, there are optimal and suboptimal ways to allocate spending money. Purchases that make one person happy might not do so for another. Finding the right products to maintain and enhance one’s preferred lifestyle could turn out to be as important to well-being as finding the right job, the right neighbourhood, or even the right friends and partners.” (Matz, et al.)

One can conclude, not only does “retail therapy” work – albeit under the right conditions for the individual – but also that there is, possibly, an efficiency model for the process, too. This improved understanding will form a fascinating starting point for the next generation of behavioural psychologists’ studies. We move towards a reality where individuals are capable of discerning the optimal use of their personal finances. One where identification of products, services and experiences that will help maximise quality of life beyond the restrictions of income or budgetary concerns.

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