Spending on experiences versus possessions advances more immediate happiness

Summary: Investing in an experience, such as attending a sports event or eating at a restaurant, generates more personal happiness than splashing out on material good, a new study reports.

Source: UT Austin

Certain purchases are better than others at sparking people’s in-the-moment happiness, according to new research from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

Lead author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing, and his research team found that consumers are happier when they spend on experiential purchases versus material ones. The paper, “Spending on Doing Promotes More Moment-to-Moment Happiness than Spending on Having,” is published in the May 2020 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“One issue that hasn’t really been examined much is what happens in the here and now — are we happier spending our money on an experience or on a material item?” Kumar said. “The basic finding from a lot of experiments is that people derive more happiness from their experiences than from their possessions.”

Kumar and his co-authors, Matthew Killingsworth from the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University, recruited 2,635 adults who were randomly assigned to a material or experiential group. The participants were sent random texts during the day to monitor their emotions and their purchasing behavior. Material purchasers bought things such as jewelry, clothing or furniture, while experiential shoppers attended sporting events, dined at restaurants, or engaged in other experiences. The results: Happiness was higher for participants who consumed experiential purchases versus material ones in every category, regardless of the cost of the item.

This is a cartoon of people with piggy banks
Consumers with piggy banks thinking about purchases.The image is credited to University of Texas at Austin.

“It would be unfair to compare a shirt to a trip, but when we account for price, we still see this result where experiences are associated with more happiness,” Kumar said.

To address possible differences in types of consumers, the researchers conducted a second study in which they asked more than 5,000 participants to first rate their happiness and then report whether they had used, enjoyed, or consumed either a material or experiential purchase within the past hour. If they responded “yes,” participants were asked a series of questions and details about their purchase.

“We still observed the same effect,” Kumar said.

“When the very same person was consuming an experience, that was associated with more happiness.”

The researchers concluded that people are happier with experiential purchases over material ones irrespective of when you measure happiness: before, during or after consumption. Experiences also provoke more satisfaction even though people typically spend more time using their material possessions. The researchers said a possible explanation is the endurance of experiences in people’s memories, while the perceived value of material goods weakens over time.

“If you want to be happier, it might be wise to shift some of your consumption away from material goods and a bit more toward experiences,” Kumar said. “That would likely lead to greater well-being.”

About this neuroscience research article

UT Austin
Media Contacts:
Jeremy Simon – UT Austin
Image Source:
The image is credited to University of Texas at Austin.

Original Research: Closed access
“Spending on doing promotes more moment-to-moment happiness than spending on having”. Amit Kumar, Matthew A.,Killingsworth, Thomas Gilovich.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103971.


Spending on doing promotes more moment-to-moment happiness than spending on having

People derive more satisfaction from experiential purchases (e.g., travel, entertainment, outdoor activities, meals out) than material purchases (e.g., clothing, jewelry, furniture, gadgets), both in prospect and retrospect. Because different types of well-being can have different determinants, we examined whether experiences have the same advantage over possessions in the here-and-now of consumption as they do in anticipation or remembrance. Participants in two large-scale experience-sampling studies were contacted in the midst of consuming an experiential or material purchase and asked about their momentary happiness. Experiential consumption was consistently associated with significantly greater happiness than either non-consumption or the consumption of material goods. In-the-moment happiness, furthermore, was greater for all subcategories of experiential purchases than for any category of material goods. Experiences thus appear to be a more promising route to enhancing well-being than possessions, irrespective of when happiness is measured.

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