Money really can buy happiness when spending fits our personality, finds a study based on 77,000 UK bank transactions.

Spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.

Joe Gladstone

People who spent more money on purchases which matched their personality were happier, found the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. According to the researchers, matching spending with personality was more important for individuals’ happiness than the effect of individuals’ total income or their total spending.

The study, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, was conducted in collaboration with a UK-based multinational bank. Customers were asked whether they would complete a standard personality and happiness questionnaire, and to consent to their responses being matched anonymously for research purposes with their bank transaction data.

The final study was based on 76,863 transactions of 625 participants. The study whittled down 112 spending categories automatically grouped by the bank into 59 categories that had at least 500 transactions over a six-month period.

The study matched spending categories on the widely recognised “Big Five” personality traits – openness to experience (artistic versus traditional), conscientiousness (self-controlled vs easy-going), extraversion (outgoing vs reserved), agreeableness (compassionate vs competitive), and neuroticism (prone to stress vs stable).

For example, eating out in pubs was rated as an extroverted and low conscientiousness (impulsive) spending category, whereas charities and pets were rated as agreeable spending categories. Further examples can be found below.

The researchers then compared the participants’ actual purchases to their personalities using this scale, and found that people generally spent more money on products that match their personality. For example, a highly extroverted person spent approximately £52 more each year on pub nights than an introverted person. Similarly, a highly conscientiousness person spent £124 more annually on health and fitness than a person low in conscientiousness.

The study was authored by Sandra Matz, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology; Joe Gladstone, a Research Associate at Cambridge Judge Business School; and David Stillwell, University Lecturer in Big Data Analytics & Quantitative Social Science at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Historically, studies had found a weak relationship between money and overall wellbeing,” said Gladstone. “Our study breaks new ground by mining actual bank transaction data and demonstrating that spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.”

The researchers believe the findings hold widespread implications, including for Internet businesses using search-based recommendation engines. Companies can use this information to recommend products and services that don’t just increase clicks, but will actually improve the wellbeing of their customers – allowing companies to forge better relationships with customers based on what makes them happier.

The researchers also backed up their findings by running a second experiment, where they gave people a voucher to spend either in a bookshop or at a bar. Extroverts who were forced to spend at a bar were happier than introverts forced to spend at a bar, while introverts forced to spend at a bookshop were happier than extroverts forced to spend at a bookshop. This follow-up experiment overcomes the limitations of correlational data by demonstrating that spending money on things that match a person’s personality can cause an increase in happiness.

“Our findings suggest that spending money on products that help us express who we are as individuals could turn out to be as important to our well-being as finding the right job, the right neighbourhood or even the right friends and partners,” said Matz. “By developing a more nuanced understanding of the links between spending and happiness, we hope to be able to provide more personalised advice on how to find happiness through the little consumption choices we make every day.”

Categories with the lowest and highest scores on each of the Big Five personality traits:

Big 5 Trait       Low High
Openness  Traffic fines, residential mortgages Entertainment, hair and beauty
Conscientiousness Gambling, toys and hobbies   Home insurance, health, fitness
Extraversion Home insurance, accountant fees Entertainment, travel
Agreeableness  Traffic fines, gambling Charities, pets
Neuroticism Stationery, hotels  Traffic fines, gambling

Sandra C. Matz, Joe J. Gladstone, and David Stillwell. ‘Money Buys Happiness When Spending Fits Our Personality.’ Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616635200

Adapted from a Cambridge Judge Business School press release.  

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