SF State professor heads new study exploring connection between money and happiness

Money still can’t buy you love, but it might buy you happiness if you know where to spend it.

According to a recently-published study led by Ryan T. Howell, assistant professor of psychology at SF State, spending money on experiences, not material possessions, can lead to a more positive well-being.

“I’ve always been trying to figure out why people spend their money in certain types of ways,” Howell said. “From the research angle, we’re really trying to find out what motivates people to spend a certain way, in terms of where they are in certain situations, and how certain variables that we might not necessarily think connect, connect.”

The study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, analyzed data from more than 9,000 participants to explore the connection between material- and experience-based purchases versus overall life satisfaction. Would enjoying a nice dinner out with friends make one happier than buying a new pair of shoes? In order to better predict consumer behavior, Howell and his research team developed the Experiential Buying Tendency Scale, which measures frequent experience-based purchasing, like dining or traveling.

Howell is now expanding on the elements of the study with his newest happiness endeavor, the website Beyond the Purchase.

The website, which he co-founded with Ravi Iyer, a graduate student in social psychology from the University of Southern California and Tom Bowerman, project director at Policy Interactive, a political marketing firm, launched Jan. 26. It works to not only question spending habits, but to provide tailored feedback to fit the current needs and desires of users. In contrast to Howell’s other studies, which drew upon volunteers that came into his lab, anyone with access to a computer will be able to be a part of the study. More engaging than a standard full-length questionnaire, the website hopes to get rid of the concern of people who begin to lose interest in studies because they don’t have the time or energy.

“It’d be interesting to see what kind of purchases are worth making and repeating because you know, through the questionnaires, certain types of things that are a good investment in happiness,” said Kenta Naoi, a visual communications major at SF State. “I think it’s a very interesting website, and I think it would take people time to see the value in it, but I think it’s something that people will be willing to use.”

After considering the issue of keeping participants engaged taking standard print questionnaires, Howell moved the research online for his next study. He hopes to combat the struggle by taking a more personal approach. The online study will allow any person willing to participate a chance to sign up for the Beyond the Purchase website and both expand Howell’s research and learn more about themselves.

“A lot of the same questions are there, but it’s more of trying to have more of a person-centered approach as opposed to a variable-centered approach,” Howell said. “In many ways there’s a component of it that’s research-based, so you can learn a lot about yourself from the surveys. It’s more about being able to give information back to specific people, as opposed to just talking in generality.”

A majority of the students in Howell’s personality and well-being lab at SF State are graduates working on their honors theses. The website is basically like a class, in which students will be able to decide their own questions of research and access data from the website to find their answers. As a part of the lab, each graduate will be allowed to build upon the data in order to expand their knowledge of their own subjects of research interest.

“One of my students might look at impulse buying; another student looks at how people manage their money,” Howell said.

Kristopher Turner, a senior psychology major, was a member of the lab for three semesters. Turner recalls his time working in the lab as a very welcoming and friendly environment.

“I would have to say I am very much a experiential buyer,” said Turner, 22. “My interest of study during the lab was mostly regarding how one can spend their money in a way to increase their happiness. He has a great way of teaching and running a lab. He makes everyone feel like a part of a family.”

Howell admittedly favors buying experiences over material possessions himself, but has made his own recent material purchase an item that was useful for the whole family.

“My most recent material purchase that wasn’t a gift? We got a Le Cruset,” Howell said. “We got a dutch oven for the Howell household.”

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