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What makes you happier – buying or doing?


HappinessIt’s payday. The decisions you make today might have an influence over your state of happiness, as numerous studies have shown. Buying experiences and making memories – such as going on a trip, make you happier than buying material possessions, despite many people frequently considering the latter of a greater value. Hence, you might have been looking for happiness in all the wrong places.

Material vs. experiential purchases – the beginnings

The distinction between material and experiential purchases was first introduced in 2003 by Leaf Van Boven (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Thomas Gilovich (Cornell University). If material purchases can be defined as “spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a material possession – a tangible object that you obtain and keep in your possession”, experiential purchases represent “spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience—an event or series of events that you personally encounter or live through.” However, the real distinction comes not from the action itself, but from the feeling of satisfaction it provides.

According to their study, “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question”, 97 University of British Columbia undergraduates were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 9, how happy they were purchasing experience / a material possession worth more than $100. Several weeks after, other 42 undergraduates were asked to rate the extent to which those events were experiential or material.

As a result, participants indicated that, compared to material purchases, experiential purchases “made them happier, contributed more to their happiness in life and represented money better spent”, as Van Boven and Gilovich mentioned.

Why are experiences more satisfying than material possessions?

Once the distinction had been established, in 2010, Thomas Gilovich, alongside Travis J. Carter (Cornell University) returned to the matter at hand and published “The Relative Relativity of Material and Experiential Purchases”, presenting the results of a study that meant to unravel the reasons why experiential purchases are more satisfying for humans. In other words, why the hedonic value generated by purchasing experiences is greater than the hedonic value of buying material assets.

Some of the reasons identified by the two researchers are:

  • Experiences are harder to compare retrospectively than possessions – therefore, you have little room for regret once the decision is made. Imagine you bought a wristband and it becomes outdated the next month since a new generation is launched; or you see a similar, yet cheaper one, and as a result you feel less satisfied about the purchase you made;
  • Comparisons between experiences have less hedonic impact than analogous comparisons between possessions; ergo, discovering there is a better location for a vacation than the one you just chose is not as troubling as the above mentioned case;
  • Experiences become memories, therefore becoming a part of the self which is much more difficult to lose or change than their material counterparts.

In their 2010 study, the two researchers proved that making decisions regarding the purchase of a product is more troublesome than making decisions regarding experiences. 142 participants were surveyed on this matter and, as predicted, participants which were materially conditioned reported that their purchases had been more difficult than the other ones. Moreover, participants’ difficulty in deciding what they wanted impacted their current feelings about the purchase: the former expressed more immediate concern about their choice than the latter.

Where do we stand in the happiness pursuit?

Although the fact that we live in a consumerist society is undeniable, the places where we should be looking for happiness can be and should be questioned.

The greater hedonic value that people acquire from experiential purchases is reflected in the common regrets about the two types of purchases. Regrets can be categorized by action and inaction – in other words you can regret either buying something or not buying it. As Rosenzweig and Gilovich discovered, in 2012, people tend to have more regrets of inaction for experiences than for material purchases.

So, on your next payday, will you stay in line to purchase the new generation smartphone, the clothes you think you need more than anything or that new LCD, or will you choose to spend your money on experiences – aspects that enhance your life and become invaluable memories? It’s all a matter of choice.

Image source: Pixabay

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