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No, that luxury brand bag won’t make you happier

In fact, it'll likely make you feel worse because it doesn't reflect who you truly are.

Strolling along New York's glamorous Fifth Avenue last week, I found myself staring in store windows and wondering who on earth would spend that kind of money on a purse, a pair of shoes, a scarf. While I have no interest in owning such luxury items myself, it got me thinking about who does, and why. So, of course I was eager to read about a study published last fall that came out of Boston College and Harvard Business School, assessing the psychological impact of luxury purchases.

What the researchers found is that making luxury purchases can actually be harmful to one's mental wellbeing, as it clashes with one's sense of authenticity. In other words, shoppers felt as if the item were incompatible with their own perception of who they were. The study authors wrote,

“Luxury can be a double-edged sword. While luxury consumption holds the promise of elevated status, it can backfire and make consumers feel inauthentic, producing what we call the ‘impostor syndrome from luxury consumption.'”

This syndrome affected two-thirds of research subjects and even extended to luxury items purchased for private use, such as skincare products, as well as items bought on sale. The only exception was on a person's birthday, when they felt a bit more deserving of the splurge.

The one-third of shoppers that did not feel the imposter syndrome were defined by their “inherent sense of psychological entitlement.” Described in The Guardian, this was “evaluated via the psychological entitlement scale, a test that includes items like: ‘If I were on the Titanic, I’d deserve to be on the first lifeboat,' or ‘Great things should come my way.'” These individuals believed the purchases fit their lifestyle and were deserved.

This research contrasts with previous studies that suggested most luxury purchases boost a person's happiness, at least to a small degree. But now the study authors say their latest research should be a wakeup call to luxury brands and advertisers to rethink how they lure shoppers – namely, by “boosting consumers' feelings of deservingness.”

I propose an alternative approach, which is to forget the (overpriced, unethical) luxury brands and discover the great happiness that comes from scoring a deal at a second-hand store. Few shopping experiences come close to the sensation of exiting a store having spent only a few dollars, knowing that what you carry is worth far more and will be used and cherished for a long time. To me, that is a truly luxurious purchase – cash to spare, no room for buyer's remorse, minimal stress over the item's exposure to the world.

I left Fifth Avenue empty-handed and turned down 53rd St to the Museum of Modern Art. That was a far better use of my money, and I left with a five floors' worth of art crammed into my brain, my heart happy, and my backpack no heavier than it was when I arrived in New York.

In fact, it'll likely make you feel worse because it doesn't reflect who you truly are.