Plenty of recent research has shown that people tend to derive more happiness from spending their money on experiences, such as travel and entertainment, than on things, such as clothing and gadgets.
But are people happier during the purchased experience itself? Or does the happiness derive more from anticipating or remembering the experience? One study found, for example, that people rate their vacations as being more enjoyable after they’ve returned home than while they are on the trip.
A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, offers an answer. Yes, our experiential purchases bring us greater pleasure in terms of anticipation and remembrance than do our material purchases, but they also bring us greater in-the-moment enjoyment, the study found.
Experiences provide us with a greater sense of satisfaction, too — even though we typically spend more time with the things that we buy.
“Experiences thus appear to be a more promising route to enhancing well-being than possessions, irrespective of when happiness is measured,” the study’s authors conclude.
A pair of studies
For the study, the researchers recruited 2,635 adults (average age: 32) who agreed to receive texts at random times during the day, asking them about their emotions and their purchasing behavior.
The texts began with a happiness question, which asked the participants to rate how they felt “right now” on a sliding scale from very bad (0) to very good (100).
Half of the participants were then asked if they had made a material purchase within the past hour, such as clothing, furniture, jewelry or electronic goods. The others were asked if they had consumed an experiential purchase within the past hour, such as eating in a restaurant or attending a concert or sporting event.
The researchers compared the happiness levels of the participants who had just bought a thing with those who had just consumed an experience. They found that the purchasers of the experiences express higher levels of happiness than the purchasers of the material goods, no matter how much the purchases cost.
“It would be unfair to compare a shirt to a trip, but when we account for price, we still see this result where experiences are associated with more happiness,” explains Amit Kumar, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, in a released statement.
A second experiment
There may be differences, however, between the types of people who frequently consume experiences and those who frequently buy things — differences that might explain the higher levels of happiness observed in the study. To address this possibility, the researchers conducted a second study.
Another 5,254 adults (average age: 31) were recruited. After being asked to rate their level of happiness, these participants were then asked if they had used, enjoyed or consumed either a material or experiential purchase within the past hour. Those who answered “yes” were then asked further questions about the purchase.
This process was repeated several times with each participant, giving the researchers an opportunity to make happiness comparisons between consumption types for people who made both types of purchases.
“We still observed the same effect,” says Kumar. “When the very same person was consuming an experience, that was associated with more happiness.”
Limitations and implications
All the participants in the study were WEIRD — they came from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies (predominantly from the United States).
“So we can’t be sure that people tend to get more enjoyment from experiential than material purchases the world over,” Kumar and his co-authors acknowledge in their paper.
Still, the study involved larger and more diverse groups of people than any previous investigation of this topic. It also assessed people’s happiness as they made “real-world” purchases during the course of their daily lives.
“We pursued this line of research in part because it offers an easy lesson people can apply to better their lives,” the researchers write.
“The results make it clear,” they conclude, “that at least among educated people in a rich, industrialized, and democratic part of the Western world, experiences provide more in-the-moment happiness than material goods.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, but the full paper is behind a paywall.