Boost well-being by buying experiences rather than stuff

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Science proves that buying for the sake of doing, rather than having, cultivates gratitude and generosity.

It makes sense that gratitude comes with enormous emotional benefits. Being thankful for and aware of what you have can shine a spotlight on life’s gifts and take the sting out of some of its cruelties. And in fact, research has found that gratitude does indeed increase well-being; it reduces visits to the doctor, enhances feelings of social connection, and improves sleep quality. It is associated with lowered depression, decreased envy, an increased sense of meaning in life, and higher life satisfaction. Thank goodness for all of that.

With such a bundle of benefits it’s little surprise that psychologists study how to tap into people’s gratitude reserves. There are more than a few studies showing that when people keep a journal of what they’re grateful for, positive benefits follow – from greater well-being and more optimistic feelings about the future to exercising more, among other positive things.

And now, just in time for a holiday about shopping being thankful and another about shopping family traditions, new research from Cornell University looks into consumer behavior to ascertain how it may or not may cultivate gratitude.

What they found was that buying an experience, like a trip or a movie or dinner out, resulted in higher levels of gratitude than did buying things, like say, a pair of boots.

"Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new," explains Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University and co-author the new study published online in a recent issue of the journal Emotion.

"You might say, 'this new couch is cool,' but you're less likely to say 'I'm so grateful for that set of shelves.' But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, 'I feel so blessed I got to go.' People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don't usually express gratitude for it – or they don't express it as often as they do for their experiences."

And wonderfully, they found that thinking about experiences leads to more subsequent altruistic behavior than thinking about possessions. Which is to say, we can add generosity to the long benefits of gratitude – and with generosity comes more gratitude comes more generosity and so on. I’m seeing the potential for – what’s the opposite of a vicious cycle? A victorious cycle? Yes, I’m seeing the potential for a victorious cycle here and it starts by taking someone to the movies instead of buying them a Chia Pet this holiday season.

See more about the study here, and know that I'm (genuinely) grateful that you read this.

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