Blog #62 – Experience versus stuff
By Dr. Mark Barry
Last time, we revisited the question of whether we should spend money on experiences or material things when looking to boost happiness, and highlighted research findings indicating that the answer may depend upon your financial resources.
More specifically, the work by Lee, Hall, and Wood, published in Psychological Science earlier this year, found that those with more disposal income (higher social class) were more likely to report greater boosts to happiness following experiential purchases, whereas those with less money (lower social class) tended to report more happiness arising from material purchases.
As we noted, this distinction suggests the area may be more complex than previously thought. In recent years, research findings suggesting that experiences trump ‘stuff’ when it comes to happiness across time have attracted mainstream media attention, and thus the idea has gained traction in the public mind, so much so for some that it has attained the level of indisputable truth. If that strikes you as a tad hyperbolic, then perhaps it might be worthwhile to do a web search for ‘experiences versus things’. When scrolling down through the results, you would be forgiven for forming the impression that this is a settled question.
However, in psychological research, truth can be a slippery beast, and today’s compelling theory can be tomorrow’s discredited idea. That’s not to say that researchers are necessarily engaged in deception or conducting sloppy work, more that research is a data-driven endeavour, and researchers go where the evidence takes them. Sometimes that means findings support existing theories and at other times can call those same theories into question, and if over time any given theory finds itself labouring under the weight of an increasing body of contradicting evidence, then it will either be revised or withdrawn. That is the nature of the scientific method. When applied correctly, it is what separates science from a forcefully expressed opinion. In other words, belief doesn’t override evidence, unfashionable as that might seem nowadays, and any scientific researcher worth their salt won’t continue to cling to a beloved theory when the weight of evidence points in a different direction.
That is not to say that we need to throw out the idea that experiences yield better results on happiness than material things. Instead, the findings reported by Lee, Hall, and Wood help to shine a light on a previously under-explored subtlety and thus contribute to our understanding of what is going on here.
So, why might it be that material purchases do more for people with less money to spend, whereas those with more money are likely to report benefits from spending on experiences? Remember, it is not just that if you have less money that you are less likely to seek out experiential purchases in the first place. That may well be the case, but in this research the authors controlled for that through their experimental manipulations. So, here at least, higher and lower social class individuals were exposed to the same situations and scenarios.
Lee, Hall, and Wood propose an answer based on the data they gathered during their work. They write: “We argue that social class influences purchase happiness because resource abundance focuses people on internal states and goals, such as self-development, self-expression, and the pursuit of uniqueness, whereas resource deprivation orients people toward resource management and spending money wisely. These fundamentally different value orientations translate into different purchase motives held by people from higher and lower classes.”
In essence, what they propose here is the idea that if you are relatively well-off, then you can literally afford to move beyond a material focus and instead dedicate yourself to personal interests and more intrinsic motivations. However, if your financial status is less secure, then you will have different, more immediate day-to-day priorities. This suggests that the practical necessity of managing limited financial resources would demand that individuals engage with the world at a more material level. Put plainly, the logic seems to be that if you have pressing financial concerns, then experiential purchases are less likely to work for you, partly because you will tend to be preoccupied with those concerns and experiential purchases may not do anything to alleviate them. In other words, focusing on personal development is all well and good, but may be a luxury you can ill-afford . . . when you can’t afford it. However, if you don’t have financial concerns to begin with, then such anxieties can’t distract or detract from the personal benefits of an experiential purchase.
In a way, this seems to harken back to the idea of the tipping point. Remember, this theory proposes that there is a direct correlation between money and happiness, but only up to the point that you achieve a certain level of comfort. Once you know you can pay your bills and engage in some discretionary spending, then more money is unlikely to offer a measurable boost to your happiness. The similarity here is that material purchases seem to correlate more with happiness until a certain point of financial security is achieved, after which the balance tilts towards experiential purchases.
All that being said, no individual piece of psychological research will ever be hailed as perfect, and this work is no different. One of the possible limitations here is that the researchers relied heavily on recall-based tasks when gathering data from participants. We know that human memory isn’t as reliable as we like to think it is, and so that alone should lead us to treat these findings with pending further work.
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.