Study shows that experiences, not things, will make you happier

little boys on a beach in Brazil
© K Martinko

Many people know that experiences will make them happier, and yet they continue to spend money on material objects because of their perceived greater value.

There is an ongoing debate between my husband and me about how we’d like to spend any extra money that comes in. He likes to acquire, slowly but surely, high quality items that will last for many years, such as cookware, chef’s knives, and winter coats.

While I can’t argue with his ongoing quest for quality, I would prefer to spend money on travel, to skip buying that gorgeous pot by Le Creuset and put that money toward a destination, an experience, and a lasting memory. We do a good job of striking a balance between our two preferences, but now I’ve come across some interesting research that I’ll have to show him as a way of boosting my side of the argument!

It has been shown by a recent study from San Francisco State University that greater happiness comes from seeking experiences, rather than material objects. Although this may seem like common sense to many readers, reality paints another picture – one in which people most often spend their money on material items because they mistakenly believe that they have greater value.

People do this because material items are tangible; they have measurable economic value attached to it; and they’re always present, able to be used or seen. Memories of experiences, on the other hand, are fleeting experiences, temporary purchases with no concrete price tag.

And yet, people are never as happy in the long run after spending money on material items than they are after forking out for adventures, travel, and experiences.

The study, co-authored by SF State Associate Professors of Psychology Ryan Howell, surveyed individuals before and after making a purchase:

“Prior to the purchase, respondents said they believed a life experience would make them happier but a material item would be a better use of their money. After the purchase, however, respondents reported that life experiences not only made them happier but were also the better value.”

Howell explains that people tend to overestimate hugely how much value they’ll get from a material object. “It’s almost like people feel they will get no economic value from their life experiences and therefore they feel this tension in spending money on them.”

Ironically, the very reasons why people make material purchases ends up making them less appealing – and that is their constant physical presence. It may appear to be greater value, but, as Cornell University psychology professor Dr. Thomas Gilovich told FastCo, adaptation is the greatest enemy of happiness.

“We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed, but only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”

Memories of experiences, however, become ingrained in our self-identity. They make it easier to connect with others who have done similar things; they are less prone to negative comparisons; and they ultimately make people happier in the long run. They also (usually) create less trash.

Just think: at the end of the day, are you going to “reminisce about the fact that you had an iPhone 6 Plus while everyone else was still using the 5, or are you going to recall golden memories you shared with the people who shaped who you’ve become?”

Tags: Shopping


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