Experiences or ‘stuff’?
When living in a society that emphasises consumption it can be easy to be sucked into the idea that more ‘stuff’ will bring with it more happiness.
It is difficult to avoid the constant barrage of advertising on television, radio, the internet, and even billboards in this country, and at least as much of a challenge to not be lured in by some of the shiny products that come across your eye-line and the big claims made on their behalf.
Indeed, in 2017, it has probably never been more difficult to avoid having your head turned by advertising, given that nowadays the ads that we see on the internet will frequently be geared specifically towards us. How many times have you visited a particular website only to then log onto social media and suddenly find ads for that website or for similar products and services? There is nowhere to hide, short of unplugging entirely, which is presumably not a viable strategy for most of us.
Mentioning targeted advertising based on an individual’s online movements raises the controversial issue of privacy and the internet, but that is most likely a matter for another type of blog entirely, so we will set it aside and leave it to those better qualified to address it. Instead, we will home in on our key question here – does the drive towards buying ‘stuff’ offer us the happiness pay-off that we crave or might we be better off channelling our efforts in different directions?
If you are a regular reader of this blog series, then you may not be surprised to hear that research indicates that if happiness is your aim, then you may be better served accumulating experiences than material possessions.
In a seminal psychological study published in 2003, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich posed the question, do experiences make people happier than material possessions? Note the wording – they did not ask whether experiences or possessions made people happy. They openly acknowledged the possibility that both may well have something to contribute. Their focus was on which of the two makes the greatest impact on happiness. It might seem like a pedantic point to make, but sometimes we lapse towards a binary approach in our thinking. As with so many things, this does not have to be an either/or scenario. Just because option A in any given set of circumstances might make us happier than option B, it does not necessarily follow that option B makes no impact, merely that it will tend to do less for us than option A.
As with all psychological research grounded in a rigorous scientific approach, this work stressed the importance of defining what exactly the authors meant when referring to experiential purchases and material purchases, respectively. While acknowledging the potential for ambiguity in drawing a firm line between the two, they ultimately offered a distinction based on intention, along the lines that experiential purchases are made “with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience: an event or series of events that one lives through” and material purchases “with the primary intention of acquiring a material good: a tangible object that is kept in one’s possession”.
In seeking to answer the key research question, they conducted surveys and experimental work. Firstly, they conducted a survey with 97 undergraduate university students in Canada, in which one group was asked to think about their most recent experiential purchase made for more than $100, while another group were asked to do the same, but for a material purchase. Participants were then asked to rate statements relating to how much the purchase had contributed to their happiness, whether it was money well-spent, and whether that money should have been spent on something else.
Those rating the experiential purchase reported greater happiness arising from that purchase than their counterparts in the material purchase condition, and also regarded it as money better spent.
The authors then conducted a national telephone survey of 1,279 residents of the United States. In a lengthy list of questions on financial planning, the real items of interest were included towards the end, with participants asked to think of both an experiential purchase and a material purchase that they had made at some point with a view towards increasing their happiness, and to choose which one had made them happier.
They found that respondents were more likely to single out their experiential purchases as having made them happier. However, the authors were mainly concerned here with detecting whatever demographic patterns may have existed within the overall group. One interesting pattern to emerge from this analysis was that people with the lowest levels of income were equally likely to rate the material or experiential purchase as having made them happier, or even leaned slightly towards the material. This was contrasted with the finding that those with at least a high school qualification were more likely to indicate that experiences made them happier.
The authors suggested that these findings were not surprising, as those participants with little discretionary income would be more focused on making ends meet and therefore were not as often in a position to wonder about the relative merits of experiential and material purchases.
A finding such as this brings to mind a topic covered earlier in this series, namely, the extent to which money can fuel happiness. As highlighted at that time (Blog entry #7), research suggests that more money correlates with more happiness until an individual reaches a certain level of comfort, i.e., you can afford to pay your bills and can set aside some resources for discretionary spending. Once this point is reached, the relationship between more money and increased happiness appears to tail off.
The findings of the Van Boven and Gilovich research attracted a lot of attention when published, and many studies have conducted examining similar questions in the intervening years. The basic finding that experiences seem to do more for our happiness than material goods remains intact, with a lot of attention devoted to trying to understand why that is the case. We will pick up on that point next time.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.