Americans Spend More in the Search for Happiness—And It's Not Working

“We end up after the recession at a higher spending rate than we were at previously because we feel like we have to make up for lost time.”

Recession? What recession? The National Retail Federation estimated that as many as 152 million people braved wild crowds to shop on Black Friday yesterday, 14 million people more than in 2010. They battled early morning crowds (and occasional outbreaks of violence) in hopes of finding the perfect gifts at the perfect cost. Research shows that Americans' spending has increased over the past few decades as people literally try to buy happiness. Unsurprisingly, it's not working.

“[Shopping] is like a drug,” says James Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University. “Our brains releases chemicals like dopamine and serotonin which actually produce feelings of pleasure, and we can become addicted to those feelings. But money and material possessions will not bring you happiness, and not only that, they can cause more harm than good.”

In Roberts’ new book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, he explores the psyche of spending and ways of curbing our nation’s collective bad habits. According to the General Social Survey, people report the same level of happiness today (about half are “pretty happy”) as they did in 1972, even though our national spending per capita increased by 96 percent during that time. More people say they are stressed, anxious, and depressed today, too. Roberts says many national problems come back to our nation’s attitude toward material possessions.

“Our spending is a reflection of our increased materialism,” Roberts says. “When we are materialistic our priorities become possessions and not people. What I don't think people understand is that the impact of materialism goes well beyond just our pocketbook.”

Roberts’ book explains that human beings are hardwired to prefer short-term rewards over long-term ones. That ingrained attitude combined with our nation’s increasing focus on the importance of stuff as a national value is a recipe for disaster, he says. “We as human beings have the tendency to compare ourselves, and that used to be called ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’” Roberts says. “Back in the 1960s that was okay, but now it’s keeping up with the Gateses.”

Today, one in three people are poor or "near-poor," and though our average savings has increased slightly since the recession officially ended, Roberts doesn’t have much hope that the economic downturn will change people's habits. “In every recession, people tighten their belts when the recession hits, but then as soon as there’s sunshine on the horizon we go back to our spending ways,” he says. “We end up after the recession at a higher spending rate than we were at previously because we feel like we have to make up for lost time.”

Roberts emphasizes that he's not advocating cutting out discretionary spending altogether. “Money within reason can make you happy,” Roberts says. “Spending money on others or vacations with family and friends will bring you happiness, but a mad rush to spend will only get you another day older and deeper in debt.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Beth Rankin

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