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Putting a price on happiness

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Simply put, “you look hot in them,” says Couch, who’s 23 and lives in Dallas. (The shoes were a Christmas gift from her mom, and although she doesn’t know the exact price, the status symbol stilettos usually cost upwards of $600.) “It's something that sets you apart from everyone and everything else.”

But wouldn’t she feel just as hot in a knockoff pair from Steve Madden? Maybe not, experts say. The more we believe an item is worth, the happier we are with our purchase — at least for a short time, says a study released today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study's participants were hooked up to brain scan machines and instructed to take a sip from five glasses of wine, which ranged from $5 to $90 a bottle. When they were told they were drinking a glass of wine from a $90 bottle, brain scans showed increased activity in the medial orbital frontal cortex,the area of the brain that registers pleasure — even if the person was actually knocking back the price equivalent of two-buck chuck.

“It’s very weird, I know,” admits Antonio Rangel, the lead author of the study and an associate economics professor at California Institute of Technology. “But people believe that more expensive prices are correlated with higher quality. So if you believe something better is happening to you, that affects the way your brain handles the experience.”

Rangel says that what his team found to be true with wine is likely true in homes, department stores and closets across the country: You kind of like your Camry, but you'd really love a Mercedes. You're OK with your Levi's, but you'd be happier with Citizens. And you’re only happy with your Coach handbag because you don’t have one by Chloe.

Happiness, it seems, is just a purchase away — an idea that’s unsettling to psychologist April Benson.

“So many people want more than they have because they want to be more than they are — so buying more equals being more,” says Benson, who lives in New York City and is the author of “I Shop, Therefore I Am.”

To Benson, what's particularly troubling about the study's finding is that some people may be confusing an item's worth with their own self-worth. These folks, she worries, will always be racing toward their next purchase, always inwardly questioning: Will this make me happy?

The happiness that follows a pricey purchase may be in part an immediate attempt to rationalize the money you just dropped. “We then start to think about it: ‘Huh, I must be worth it. I must be worth a lot if I’m buying this expensive item,’” Benson says.

Not to worry, bargain hunters — there’s joy to be found in Nordstrom Rack, as well. “The fact that you just found a good deal is enjoyable in its own self,” Rangel says. In other words, it's not the price you pay, it's what you believe something's worth.

Sadly, it’s a fleeting kind of glee. The brain scan study showed that the brain's pleasure centers only reacted to the enjoyment of the pricey wine for a few seconds, or just a few beats longer than it took to swallow. After that, your retail joy is gone. And so is your money.

“You can never get enough of what you don’t really need,” says Benson. “And if people are looking for purchases to meet their psychological needs, it’s not too likely that the purchases can do that.”

But that, emphasizes the Louboutin-clad Couch, is not the point. The real source of her shoes’ power is in their ability to set her apart from the crowd — in a club, in photos from said club and in said photos from said club posted on her Facebook profile.

“It’s so worth the pain, so worth the price, so worth whatever — it’s totally worth it,” Couch says, “cause you look really hot.”