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The online purchases making us happiest, according to science

The UK spends three times more when online shopping compared to the global average, costing the average person a whopping £1,382 per year! But how does splashing the cash really make us feel? The mobiles experts at Money.co.uk made it their mission to find out.

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It’s long been known that shopping gives us pleasure due to the hit of dopamine - a happiness hormone. Lee Chambers, a psychologist, states that because we view shopping as a rewarding transaction, “it is likely to activate the nucleus accumbens in our brain, releasing dopamine and motivating us to repeat the behaviour”. 

In a bid to reveal which purchases make us happiest, we analysed thousands of online transactions and conducted an emotions test among 2,560 participants*.

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The experiment

Using a variation of the Brief Mood Introspection Scale (BMIS), we asked participants to record the intensity of 10 different emotions prior to making an online purchase, and after payment has been made. The intensity of each emotion was allocated a score based on its positivity, before being added together to create an overall score out of a possible 500 for each item purchased. Essentially the higher the score, the better.

To give us a general mood score, all 2,560 participants recorded their mood prior to making an online purchase. Within five minutes of making payment, participants were then asked to record their emotions again. Participants recorded an average score of 287 out of 500 before making a purchase, which was used as a baseline throughout the study for comparison purposes, to see how much happiness levels increased by, on average, after buying something online.

Which online purchases make us happiest?

Our research found that ordering items online increases happiness by an average of 56%, but which items make us happiest?

Purchasing a houseplant brings us more joy than any other transaction according to our study. Accumulating 478 points out of a possible 500, participants’ moods improved by 67% after buying a plant for the home. It’s no wonder it scores so highly in our study as interaction with indoor plants can reduce stress and anxiety levels. What’s more, it has also been found that plants induce positive changes in the brain’s electrical activity, muscle tension and heart activity.

Bagging the latest PlayStation or Xbox console was found to increase people's mood by 66% on average, just 25 points short of full marks (475). Furthermore, video games also rank among the top 10 - in sixth spot - racking up a score of 466 and increasing positive emotions by 62%.  In fact, studies have shown that moderate gameplay can contribute to positive emotion and can reduce stress. So it’s unsurprising that this ranks so highly on the list of purchases that make us happiest.

Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading, as more than 1.8 million books are sold in the UK every day. Not only can books teach us about the world, improve our vocabulary and writing skills, but they can also make us happier too. Our research found that purchasing a fiction book has been found to amass a score of 470 out of 500 and increase our happiness levels by an average of 64%.

Purchasing home gym equipment and exercise clothing can arguably incite the same emotions as taking part in the act of exercise itself, activating the release of ‘happy chemicals’ in the brain, known as endorphins. According to our study, participants buying home gym equipment accumulated a score of 468 BMIS points on average, and buying exercise clothes collects seven points less (461), resulting in a 63% and 61% increase in positive emotions, respectively.

It’s no secret that a candle is often our go-to option de-stress and unwind after a day’s work. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that purchasing a new candle can make us happy and improve our mood. Participants in our study reported a 61% increase in positive emotions once a transaction was made, and received a positive emotions score of 463 out of a possible 500.

The top 30 online purchases making us happiest

At the bottom end of our list is a ‘holiday abroad’. Despite jetting off on a plane claiming to help people de-stress and relax, booking online only increases happiness levels by 37% - half that of houseplants in first place (67%). In fact, booking a staycation made participants happier than going abroad according to our study, as it improved participants’ moods by 49%. 

However, when bearing in mind the uncertainty of travel restrictions due to coronavirus, it should come as no surprise that travelling overseas is bound to make people uneasy and favour staying on home turf.

Technology-related items, like laptops and smartphones, also feature towards the end of our list, suggesting they are among some of the most stressful items to buy online. Our study revealed that purchasing a laptop and mobile phone online only increases positive emotions by 45% and 51%, respectively.

Men vs women breakdown

As we grow older, the items that bring us joy change as our lives evolve. Younger generations tend to enjoy buying items, such as games consoles and trainers, whereas those aged between 35 and 54 in our study, said that buying a houseplant brought them the most pleasure. For participants aged between 55 and 75, our study found that buying a fiction book made them happiest of all.

Age breakdown

As we grow older, the items that bring us joy change as our lives evolve. Younger generations tend to enjoy buying items, such as games consoles and trainers, whereas those aged between 35 and 54 in our study, said that buying a houseplant brought them the most pleasure. For participants aged between 55 and 75, our study found that buying a fiction book made them happiest of all.

Why does shopping make us happy?

Interested in the reasons behind our vast improvement in positive feelings, we spoke exclusively to Lee Chambers, a psychologist and wellbeing consultant, to uncover exactly why shopping makes us happy.

“Online shopping has the ability to make us happy through several different mechanisms. Firstly, even in a world of plenty, we are still evolutionarily designed to consider scarcity. Because of this, acquiring new items, especially when discounted or limited, tends to make us happy, the feeling we have satisfied a need and potentially averted a future threat. 

“Shopping is also an exercise in control. We select from millions of items precisely what we want, and especially in the uncertain times we live in, we know we will get exactly what we have purchased, and it will be delivered straight to us. This control of selection and guarantee of receipt is powerful, as it becomes a defined event. We also build a level of expectation and anticipation from the moment we press the purchase button, as we believe we now have ownership over the item but have a delay until it is with us physically. 

“From a cultural perspective, we have been conditioned to see shopping as a reward, either an investment in ourselves or for the satisfaction of others. Shopping is likely to activate the nucleus accumbens in our brain, releasing dopamine and motivating us to repeat the behaviour. Buying printed media taps into our desire to better ourselves, gain knowledge, understand the world around us and provide stories and entertainment that can take us on a journey. And let’s not forget how lovely they look on your bookshelf on a video call, as books have become a decorative symbol over the past year. 

“And why do we keep buying? Our brain is adaptive, and shopping can relieve stress, provide entertainment when bored and give us a hit of dopamine. The rewarding feeling will keep us finding new things to purchase, especially since our excitement and anticipation fade once we've received the item.”

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  • Money.co.uk surveyed 2,560 people and asked them to list the products that make them most excited to purchase online. They then collected the results and created a list of the top 50.

  • *After working with a psychologist and adapting a standard Brief Mood Introspection test (BMIS), they asked 2,560 participants to complete a variation of the BMIS test from February to March 2021, using a Likert scale. The test was adapted to fit the most common emotions felt when making a purchase online (point five).

  • The test asked participants to rank 10 selected emotions on a scale of one to five:

    • Definitely do not feel, 

    • Do not feel

    • Neutral

    • Slightly feel

    • Definitely feel

Each response was allocated a certain number of points based on its indication of happiness. When analysing the positive emotions, ‘definitely feel’ was allocated 50 points and ‘definitely do not feel’ was allocated 10. When analysing negative emotions ‘definitely feel’ was allocated 10 and ‘definitely do not feel’ was allocated 50 points. The more points a category scores, the better.

  • The analysed emotions were chosen after surveying the respondents to find the five most common positive and negative emotions when making a purchase online:

    • Positive: Happy, satisfied, excited, optimistic, interested.

    • Negative: Nervous, sad, gloomy, worried, frustrated.

  • To standardise the results, and compare the percentage increase in happiness to when products aren’t being purchased, participants were asked to complete the emotions test prior to making any analysed purchases to find the average emotions score.

  • Participants were then asked to select three items from the top 50 list they’re looking to purchase. After completing an online purchase, they were asked to fill in the same emotions test.

  • Participants' scores were averaged to find the final total per emotion. These results were then analysed to find the average mood improvement per emotion. The average results of each emotion were then combined to find the overall points scored per item.

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