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Why ‘experience’ shoppers are happier

Buying life experiences tends to makes us happier than buying things.

Catching a show at the Jungle will likely bring more happiness than buying things at a mall.

Next time you pull out your wallet to hand over some of your hard-earned money, you’d be wise to spend it on experiences rather than possessions. For as research on happiness and spending habits has demonstrated repeatedly in recent years, buying life experiences tends to makes us happier than buying things.

What hasn’t been as clear, however, is why some individuals are more likely to use their disposable income on, say, camping in the Boundary Waters or catching a show at the Jungle Theater than shopping at the Mall of America.

In fact, psychologists know very little about habitual “experiential shoppers.” A recent study, however, appears to have unlocked some clues.

For the study, a team of psychologists from San Francisco State University and the University of Southern California analyzed data from online surveys taken by nearly 10,000 volunteers. The participants answered questions about their shopping habits, values and purchasing choices. They also answered questions that measured what are called the “Big Five” dimensions of personality: extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

Extroverted, open to new experiences

The data revealed that people who habitually choose experiences over material stuff tend to have several specific personality characteristics: Most notably, they are more likely to be extroverted and open to new experiences.

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“Considering that compared to material items, life experiences are likely to result in more social engagement, it is reasonable that extroverts prefer experiential purchases,” the authors concluded. “Openness to experience may be related to experiential buying due to the diversity and variability associated with life experiences. Unlike material purchases that are mass-produced and easily replicated, every vacation, every show, and every meal provides an individual with a different experience that cannot easily be repeated again.”

Kathleen Vohs
Kathleen Vohs

“This is a robust, replicable finding that appears to be quite strong,” said Kathleen Vohs, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, in an e-mail interview. Vohs was not involved in this latest research but has conducted her own studies on the psychology of money and spending.

The current study also shows, said Vohs, “that you can measure this phenomenon precisely and that people of different personality characteristics are more or less likely to show the effect.”

A detailed survey

The study reveals some fascinating details about the differences between experiential and materialistic shoppers. On an emotional level, for example, experiential shoppers are more fun seeking. They tend to enjoy “acting on a whim” and are more likely to “get caught up in the excitement when others are celebrating.” They also report a deeper affinity with “natural, artistic, and moral beauty.”

People with materialistic spending habits, on the other hand, score higher on a variety of negative emotions, like attachment anxiety (“I worry a lot about my relationships”), personal distress (“I sometimes feel helpless in the middle of a very emotional situation”), and something psychologists call disgust sensitivity (“It bothers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucous”).

Could it be, though, that the greater life satisfaction reported by extroverts is due to their personality rather than to their shopping habits?

“Well, yes,” said Vohs, “extroverts seem to have greater life satisfaction, but that’s not what this study is looking at. It’s possible that extroverts are happier and therefore buy more experiences — but the data here don’t seem to suggest that’s the case.”

What these findings do suggest, she stressed, is “that buying experiences makes you happier than [buying] products.”

In other words, even non-extroverts report that experiences bring them more happiness than stuff. They are just less likely to routinely make those choices.

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Purchases seen as an opportunity

Of course, some purchases, like a bicycle or a television, can be considered either a product or an experience. But you’ll be happier, said Vohs, if you view those items as being an opportunity to have an experience rather than to possess a product.

So, why do so many people continue to behave as if buying things will make them happier?

“I think that’s a cultural effect, partly,” said Vohs, “meaning that North American culture promotes materialism as a value that people should adopt and pursue. Moreover, the things that we buy are all around us, prompting many more memories about their role in our happiness, whereas experiences are ephemeral and therefore not all that easy to recall how happy they made us.”

The study was published in the January-February issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Its authors have set up a website called “Beyond the Purchase,” where you can take several surveys and find out what kind of shopper you are. You can also receive feedback on “maximizing the benefits of your spending.” The site is an academic one, the authors stress, with no fees or advertising.