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Consuming experiences rather than things leads to greater gratefulness and generosity, study finds

“People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it — or they don’t express it as often as they do for the experiences,” said psychologist Thomas Gilovich.

Gratitude increases our feelings of social connection and deepens our sense that life has meaning.

Thanksgiving is a time when many people stop, if only briefly, to reflect on what they’re grateful for.

From a health standpoint, such moments of gratitude may be time well spent. Research suggests that the experience of gratitude has a variety of positive effects on our mental and physical well-being, including lowering depression, improving sleep and even reducing visits to the doctor.

Gratitude also increases our feelings of social connection and deepens our sense that life has meaning.

Cultivating gratitude, therefore, is a good thing — or it can be. But how do we go about doing that cultivation?

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Well, a new study suggests that one of the best ways is through “consuming” experiences rather than things. In other words, the study found that people feel much more gratitude for what they’ve done than for what they own. 

Furthermore, that “experiential” gratitude has an extra benefit: It tends to result in people behaving more generously toward others.

“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” said Thomas Gilovich, one of the study’s authors and a psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in a released statement. “You might say, ‘This new couch is cool,’ but you’re less likely to say, ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’ But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go.’”

“People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it — or they don’t express it as often as they do for the experiences,” he added.

Multiple approaches

The study, which was published online late last month in the journal Emotion, is actually six separate studies.

The first of those studies simply asked people to list both a material and experiential purchase they had made and then say which one made them feel more grateful. More than 63 percent of the respondents chose their experiential purchase.

To rule out the possibility that the respondents felt they were supposed to cite their experiences as creating more gratitude, the researchers conducted two additional studies in which the purpose of the experiment was more disguised. The findings, however, were similar: Respondents expressed more gratitude when they spent money on experiences rather than on things.

Interestingly, the research also found that the “gratitude gap” between experiential and material purchases is due more to the experiential ones increasing gratitude than the material ones dampening it.

In yet another study, the researchers randomly selected 1,200 comments from customer review websites, which were then rated on a three-point “gratitude” scale. The comments for experiential purchases were significantly more likely to express spontaneous gratitude than those posted about material purchases.

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“People tend to be more inspired to comment on their feelings of gratitude when they reflect on the trips they took, the venues they visited, or the meals they ate than when they reflect on the gadgets, furniture, or clothes they bought,” Gilovich and his colleagues write. 

Greater generosity

The final two studies examined how gratitude for experiences versus material purchases affects pro-social behavior — or, more specifically, generosity toward others.

These studies, which involved an economic game, found that people who thought about an experiential purchase behaved more altruistically toward others than those who thought about a possession — even when the “others” were unknown to them and when no one would know they had acted generously.

“These results indicate that the benefits of experiential consumption extend beyond the purchase itself and even beyond the experiencer: they flow outward to others as well,” write Gilovich and his colleagues

Less comparison with others

Why do experiences, but not material purchases, elicit feelings of gratitude and generosity? The researchers offer several explanations:

Experiences tend to be evaluated more on their own terms, and less in terms of how they stack up with the experiences of others, and thus foster more of an intrinsic than extrinsic orientation.

Feeling in tune with one’s inner values is likely to promote more of a sense of gratitude than dividing one’s attention between what one has and what others have.

Experiences also tend to contribute more to a person’s identity than material goods and anything that boosts a person’s sense of self — the sense that one’s life is rich and there are fewer personal deficits to hide, overcome, or compensate for — is also likely to enhance gratitude.

Finally, experiences do more to foster social connection than material goods do and by furthering this fundamental human need, they are likely to promote greater feelings of gratitude as well. 

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Guidance for policymakers

Of course, this research comes with all sorts of caveats. To begin with, most of the studies involved small numbers of people, often college students. Whether studies involving larger and more diverse groups of people would have the same results is unclear. In addition, the altruism studies were conducted in a laboratory setting. In “real-world” situations, people might behave quite differently.

Still, the findings are intriguing — and may, as Gilovich and his colleagues propose, offer some guidance for policymakers who are looking for ways to use social psychology to improve people’s lives. 

“As we have shown, in addition to enhancing gratitude, experiential consumption may also increase the likelihood that people will cooperate and show kindness to each other,” the researchers write. “Our results thus lend weight to the notion that governments might increase the general well-being of their citizens by providing infrastructure and incentives that make it easier for people to consume experiences.”

In the press release accompanying the study, Gilovich suggests that such policies might include increased funding for public parks, museums and arts performance spaces.

Now, that would be something to be grateful for.

FMI: The full study can be read online.