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Study: Happiness Is Experiences, Not Stuff

a man standing next to a body of water

If you’re trying to buy happiness, you’d be better off putting your money toward a tropical island get-away than a new computer, a new study suggests.

The results show that people’s satisfaction with their life-experience purchases — anything from seeing a movie to going on a vacation — tends to start out high and go up over time. On the other hand, although they might be initially happy with that shiny new iPhone or the latest in fashion, their satisfaction with these items wanes with time.

The findings, based on eight separate studies, agree with previous research showing that experience-related buys lead to more happiness for the consumer. But the current work provides some insight into why.

Among the reasons:

  • People are more likely to mull over their material purchases than they are experiential ones, second-guessing themselves about whether they really made the best choice.
  • We tend to think of experiences more on their own terms, rather than in comparison with other things.
  • It’s easier for us to decide on an experiential purchase than a material one.
  • We’re more upset if we learn that someone else got a better deal, or that a better option exists, for a material purchase than for an experience-related one.

Satisfaction with a purchase could also come down to mindset. When participants in one study thought of material purchases, such as a music CD, as an experience (many hours of enjoyable listening), they were more satisfied than those who viewed the purchase as just a material item.

a man standing next to a body of water

Couple on the bow at sunset

In another study, 142 participants were asked to think about either a material or experience-related purchase they had made that cost at least $50. Then, they answered questions about: how difficult the decision was to make; how concerned they were that they made the right choice; and how satisfied they were with the purchase initially and at present.

The people who thought of a material purchase were significantly more likely to report feeling concerned about the buy and less satisfied with their choice at present than those who had recalled an experiential purchase.

A third study involved 164 participants who were asked how they felt about a hypothetical situation in which they had made a purchase, but later found out that other, superior choices existed. They imagined either buying a material good, such as a wristwatch, laptop, MP3 player or a pair of jeans, or an experience, including a meal at a restaurant, a movie viewing, a New York City show, or an island vacation.

Subjects who imagined a material purchase were more likely to be disturbed by the availability of better options, and in turn, reported diminished satisfaction with the buy, than those who imagined an experiential purchase.

And participants were more likely to be jealous of a rival’s superior purchase if the item in question was a possession rather than an experience.

Since materials are more easily compared with other things than experiences are, material buys bring more concern and less happiness than experiential ones, the researchers from Cornell University say.

The results were published in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.