In choosing to spend your money on things or experiences, you might think possessions are a surer bet for future happiness. After all, experiences last only a few minutes or a few days, and possessions, if well made, might last a lifetime. But, in fact, researchers say the exact opposite is often true. People are generally happier when they spend cash on vacations and eating out, rather than when they spend on, say, jewelry and clothing. The latter might create short-term buzz, but the former's payoff is more long-lasting.
Science gives several reasons for this. One, experiential purchases tend to foster more social connection: You go on vacation with your friends or family, but you enjoy a material good on your own. Two, experiences shape our identity and sense of self, broadening our outlook. And, three, experiences are less competitive: We're more likely to compare our material goods—what phone we have, what handbag we're carrying—than where we went away in the summer. Comparing yourself to other people is, of course, rarely good for being happy.
New research adds another aspect to the evidence, suggesting that experiential purchases are superior in another, more specific way: They promote gratitude. And in promoting gratitude, we're more likely to be generous with one another, and engage in other prosocial behavior, say Jesse Walker and Thomas Gilovich, at Cornell University, and Amit Kumar, at the University of Chicago.
"I don't want to encourage people to live the life of an ascetic and give up all material possessions. But I do think people would be a bit happier if they tilted expenditures a bit more in the experiential direction," says Gilovich, a professor of psychology.
The researchers tested the connection between material and experiential purchases and happiness and gratitude in a series of experiments, ranging from asking people how it felt after certain buying decisions to how they react online (at Yelp and TripAdvisor, say, as opposed to CNET and Amazon). In every case, experiential purchases seemed to foster greater feelings of gratitude than the consumption of material goods.
"People say, 'Oh, I'm thrilled by the material thing received,' but they rarely say they're grateful for it. It's more likely people will say, 'Oh, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit that country,'" Gilovich says.
The holidays are a time to be grateful for all we have, small and big. But maybe for the rest of the year, we need more experiences, and fewer possessions, to keep us on the right track? Gilovich says enabling experiences should be a priority, even at the government level.
"We're interested in getting the message out at the local, state, and even federal level to create a 'experiential' infrastructure to make it easy to have the kinds of experiences that are gratifying. That might be trails for walking or biking, or cleaning up the beaches so people can go body surfing," he says.