1. Education
Kendra Cherry

Experiences vs. Material Possessions: What Brings the Greatest Happiness?

By March 6, 2009

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An interesting new study was brought to my attention by Phylameana lila Desy, About.com's Guide to Healing. She asks what offers the greatest happiness bang for your buck, experiences or material goods? The study published in the Journal of Consumer Research looked at whether experiences, such as going on a vacation, bring greater happiness than material acquisitions, such as purchasing a new car.

happiness
What brings the greatest happiness: Experiences or material possessions?
Photo © sanja gjenero

"Dating as early as David Hume and through Tibor Scitovsky and many others, the sentiment has been that individuals will be happier if they spend their money on experiences (theatre, concerts, and vacations) as opposed to material purchases (fancy cars, bigger houses, and gadgets)," the study's authors explain."

In one survey of more than 12,000 Americans, psychologist Leaf Van Boven found that people reported greater happiness from investing in life experiences rather than purchasing material goods. Van Boven suggests that the reason for this is that experiences are easier to interpret positively, contribute more to social relationships and are a more meaningful part of personal identity.

While it is generally believed that experiences trump possessions, the results of this study suggest that this isn't the case for everyone.

The study indicates that for positive purchases, the conventional wisdom that experiences have a higher happiness payoff is probably accurate. For purchases that turn out negatively, such as a low quality product or horrible vacation, experiences appear to decrease happiness more than material items.

While the authors caution consumers to make wise choices when making experiential purchases, they also agree with the standard belief that experiences result in greater happiness than material items. "Given a good probability of a positive experience, our research echoes past research in suggesting that money is well spent on vacations, concerts, amusement parks, and restaurants over comparably priced objects and trinkets," they suggest.

Further Reading:

Leonardo Nicolao, Julie R. Irwin, and Joseph K. Goodman. (2009). Happiness for sale: Do experiential purchases make consumers happier than material purchases? Journal of Consumer Research.

Comments

March 9, 2009 at 1:58 pm
(1) Linda says:

This is way too simplistic a question. Buying a car when you have never had one (whether because of youth, or low income)makes that material aquistion much more valuable. If you took people’s relative wealth and experience into consideration, the results might look much different!

March 10, 2009 at 11:34 am
(2) paul alderson says:

the age of the person asked can also make a difference as you may find that in some casesthe older people get the less they value possesions in relation to experiences this can be more apparent in people who have lost loved ones

March 11, 2009 at 7:40 am
(3) Bob Jackson says:

Generally, life experiences trump material ones. However, purchases have brought me enormous happiness. My house, computer and laptop, for instance, have enriched and made my life more productive.
For the most part we remember moments, like weddings, births, a memorable vacation, spending special times with family and friends. Material possessions tend to be disposable such as food, cars, clothes etc. For instance, you remember the laughter and fun from your time at the restaurant, not necessarily what you ate.

March 12, 2009 at 10:45 am
(4) Mathai Fenn says:

I love this approach to psychology. All you have to do is to ask the question directly. Next time I want to do a personality test, I will just ask someone, WHAT IS YOUR PERSONALITY. Perhaps even run a statistic on the most popular personality type!

March 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm
(5) Kendra says:

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Really great points! I would also argue that in some cases, making a purchase that seems materialistic on the surface is an experience in an of itself. For example, the experience of buying your first car or the experience of buying a home.

Mathai: I wouldn’t call this much of a personality test. It’s an informal forced-choice opinion poll. It’s purpose is to get respondents to think about what makes them happy, not demonstrate a statistic on personality types.

March 16, 2009 at 2:07 pm
(6) Catherine says:

I think it’s a case of not what you buy, but what you do with it, employing a glass half full philosophy to approach things: material possessions are just a part of any experience!

February 12, 2010 at 3:54 am
(7) Nimish Nagpal says:

My very question is about the defination of Happiness. And the second thought which came to my mind after reading this article was – What is the time span for which a person is experiencing the feeling of happiness.
Employing the glass full of philisophy to approach things: even the experiences mentioned above (vacations, parks etc) are also materialistic.
Just after reading the topic of the article I was in a view of reading something about removing the identity crisis – experiencing the “Real Self” Vs the materialistic possessions.

March 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm
(8) Jennifer DiDonato says:

I do see both points of view that some material needs or wants are required to help us lead a fulfilled life based on what society has placed on us (a running car, a cozy house, comfortable clothes, etc.) But I am a strong believer that experiences from accomplishments, health goals, vacations, and even positive relationships with people who value the same things as you are priceless. Of course, it is not about whether one or the other makes you HAPPY – it is about how content and fulfilled you are with the things you have. There is nothing wrong with finding happiness with a material thing that you worked hard to get. As long as you appreciate it and value it for the right reasons, you can be happy with both experiences and material things : )

December 16, 2010 at 9:26 pm
(9) usnyu says:

Well, if just buying something makes you happy, I suggest a degree in psychology. Maybe a life experience degree. Seem like a good idea, sorta ‘fake it till you make’ it thing. Ah, but, then I googled ‘life experience degrees suck’. Well, I guess my degree won’t help me understand people, especially myself. Hmm, back to the drawing board. Maybe Buddha was right. Let go of your desires.

April 19, 2011 at 10:25 am
(10) Ale says:

The survey at the end of the article (on the same question dealt with in the article) should have been placed at the begining of the article rather than at the end.
I am sure the results of that online survey is being influenced by the info in the article itself….

July 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm
(11) Phil says:

I think you can be more precise in your conclusion. Happiness is a continuous and positive state of being that starts from within, the overflow of which affects others positively. There is no material possession in the world that can have this effect. What you mean by happiness in this article is “transitional excitement.” Possession oriented transitional excitement has a high degree of “initial transitional excitement” – this euphoria lasts for the duration of the “newness” of the object and fades rapidly as the transitional excitement fades. By definition transitional happiness is transitional.

Experiences also have a high degree of initial transitional excitement which like possessions fades as the newness fades.

After initial necessities are met, first house, first car, all other possessions don’t have the same forceful transitional excitement. Purchasing yet another house has half or less transitional excitement as the first house.

December 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm
(12) Ty says:

The either/or approach is misleading. Many things are bought as a means to experiences. The obvious ones being sporting goods, tools and craft materials. Trinkets even serve this purpose, when on display they change the experience of the environment in which you live. Renting vs owning a house changes the experience as well. When renting, ideas relating to change in the immediate environment are necessarily limited to changing wall colors (if allowed), furniture arrangement, drapery, etc. Own the home and ideas expand. Moving walls, adding rooms, adding baths and other such changes enter thoughts as possibilities. Unless there are serious underlying problems, owning a home is more positive, even if in worse shape than a rental simply because more potentials can be realized and they are under your control.
The worst thing about this view is that most embracing it as healthy are simply doing so to duck responsibility for their actions.

March 1, 2012 at 10:25 am
(13) jbrovo says:

I beleive that experiences do shape who a person is but physical possesions also do this i mean think about it when you were little you had a stuffed animal or somthing that you used to create experiences just within your mind and this very much shapped you into the person you are today. Many peope will think this is a one way idea, that you can only choose “possesions” or “experiences” but they together go hand in hand because possesions give you new experinces wether through the simple immagination or through external stimuli such as somthing amazing happening accidently so basicly just realize that you shouldnt overthink what you do or what you buy sometimes the best thing you can do is simply do it without thinking and hope for the best.

September 21, 2012 at 11:16 am
(14) Derek Huber says:

I think a lot of these comments are missing the point. The measure is more of needless material purchases VS experiences. A house and a car are easily classified as necessities and shouldn’t be included in this study. The only tie would be making practical decisions in those purchases can lead to more “experiences” because of those purchases. The idea is can a vacation benefit you more then a bigger TV? Can an outing with friends bring more satisfaction and lasting happiness then a new watch. I’ve bought expensive cars and I’ve taken $100 dollar back packing trips with buddies. I know which was the clear choice for me as far as lasting happiness and value goes.

November 27, 2012 at 9:22 am
(15) twemothy says:

I feel this study is only applicable to first world countries, where people have excess $$ and are scratching their heads on how to spend it. That said, alot of great experiences are not something money can buy – the experiences listed in the study (theme park, vacations, concerts) derive value from the social component of the experience (our family/good friends whom we go wild with), which is not something we explicitly pay for.

However, we overlook the fact that we can do without spending on experiential goods because we are in a state of consumption, where major economic forces promote through media upscale spending through the stretching of reference groups and promotion of a culture that love = gifts and experiences = spending money to do something because it benefits their businesses. As mentioned by Nimish Nagpal, sometimes experiential purchases are also materialistic. I think i would go further by saying all purchases are materialistic.

Also, it overlooks the fact that we have experiences (since we were newborns) even without doing experiential purchasing – contrast that to the fact that we have no materials if we do not do material purchases. With so many other less transitory exciting (free) experiences to compare with (such as playing/studying/exercising/being a being), experiential purchases definitely stands to be at an advantage (if not from its inherent economic value theres always cognitive dissonance to count on). My point – its not an equal comparison! To compare the two and conclude experiential purchases are better is simplistic and silly.

November 27, 2012 at 9:23 am
(16) twemothy says:

Lastly, it is reported that less materialistic people feel worse off when they make a bad experiential purchase compared to if it was a material purchase. I don’t feel like saying this, but perhaps this is due to their frugality? That their $$ have been wasted on something unseen – at least in the case of a material purchase it is still tangible and resellable?

In summary, my points of contention with this study is that it is
1) Not the experiential purchases per say that makes us happy, but the social component which money didn’t buy in the first place.
2) Locked in the time, socioeconomic status (middle – upper class people) and culture of prospering first world nations (self centered)
3) Overlooking the fact that we have experiences even without doing experiential purchasing.

April 13, 2013 at 2:56 am
(17) Claudia says:

Hi Kendra,

have a question. does this about.me webpage also exist as a book?

Thank you for your response

Yours
Claudia

May 27, 2013 at 6:04 pm
(18) Usman Asad says:

Well I personally believe both go hand in hand.. i mean possessions can serve as a tool for a better and fulfilling experience…For instance, if you were to go on a road trip, and you’re car was a wreck, there are more chances of stress rather than enjoyment.

July 8, 2013 at 5:14 am
(19) Jacob says:

@twemothy,

Your points of contention are definitely founded. Their “conclusion” is supporting the notion that the money spent on vacation will bring happiness, but the reality is that it the time spent with family and friends that bring the happiness—whether you spent money on the vacation or not. Plus, define happiness. For 100 people, you’ll probably get 100 different answers. There is not a one size fits all here. At least the study gave a nod to the “social” impact that the “experiences” have. The difference would be going on a backpacking vacation in Europe by yourself or with family or friends. The two “experiences” are completely different, IMO and will lean heavily on a person’s definition of what is happiness and what is important to them.

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