Buying Happiness: Satisfaction and Material Purchases vs. Experiential “Investments”

-*Does acquiring possessions lead to happiness and satisfaction?

Leaf Van Boven

Leaf Van Boven

“Not so much,” according to University of Colorado’s Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell, who reported that material purchases are less satisfying than experiential purchases.

Thomas Gilovich

Thomas Gilovich

They suggest that experiences make people happier because experiences are:

  • Subject to positive reinterpretation
  • Central to one’s identity
  • More positively valued by others as having “social value.”
Travis Carter

Travis Carter

Gilovich collaborated with Travis Carter of University of Chicago to survey diverse respondents from various demographic groups.
These two cross-sections of the public reported that purchases to acquire a life experience made them happier than “hedonic” or “utilitarian” material purchases.

In Gilovich and Carter’s related lab experiment, volunteers said they had more positive feelings after recalling an experiential purchase than after thinking about a material purchase.

Eunice Kim

Eunice Kim

Participants also expected that experiences would make them happier than material possessions when they adopted a future, “big picture” perspective in contrast to a present-oriented view.
This finding echoes Eunice Kim Cho and team’s decision-making conclusions highlighted in the last blog postReframing Non-Comparable Choices to Make Them Simpler, More Satisfying

Volunteers reported that material purchases are less satisfying because they can lead to focusing on unchosen options, and comparing to other people’s choices, which contributes to doubt and rumination about alternate choices.

Russell Belk

Russell Belk

In addition, most people “maximize” when they make material purchases in an exhaustive, time-consuming process of considering all possible options, then selecting the optimal-seeming alternative.

Marsha Richins

Marsha Richins

In contrast, most people “satisfice” when selecting experiences by setting a minimum standard for decision quality, then selecting the first option.
This more rapid approach typically leads to less regret.

Scott Dawson

Scott Dawson

People who strongly agree with statements like “Some of the most important achievements in life include acquiring material possessions” and “Buying things gives me a lot of pleasure” report lower levels of life satisfaction according to York University’s Russell Belk as well as to University of Missouri’s Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson of Portland State University, in separate studies.

Many people intuitively sense that possessions don’t buy happiness, and these studies confirm that life experiences tend to be more satisfying than material objects.

-*How do you choose among “utilitarian” items, experiences, and “hedonic” possessions when making purchases?

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4 thoughts on “Buying Happiness: Satisfaction and Material Purchases vs. Experiential “Investments”

  1. Rick Heller

    Interesting post. However, it is also possible to do comparison and ‘buyer’s remorse” of experiences. Sometimes, when I’ve planned and gone on a vacation, I’m wondering if I made the right choice to go to this destination as opposed to another. The first couple days of our trip this summer to Ireland, I was definitely in an evaluation mode to see if it stacked up well against other trips. After a couple days, I was satisfied that it was a good choice and I need have no buyer’s remorse.

    I’m generally not materialistic, but I do collect a certain type of glass bottle. A couple years ago, I came across two of them in an antique shop and bought them. I have not experienced much hedonic adaptation. I’m still quite tickled to have found them.

    So it may have something to do with the uniqueness of the experience or of the possession, which produces a sense of novelty.

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thanks so much, Rick, for taking time to share your thoughtful analysis of buyer’s remorse for experiential purchases.
      This is an important point because it’s likely that few purchases are immune to potential “second-guessing” and decision re-evaluation.
      Thanks, too, for the introduction to your work on humanism and mindfulness, which are directly related to the social science research mentioned in “Buying Happiness.”
      I hope you’ll provide comments to future posts from this valuable perspective.

  2. Pingback: Explicit Gratitude Increases Well-Being, Reduces Materialism | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

  3. Pingback: Loneliness, Happiness Affect Gene Expression, Health | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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