How to Choose Between Experiential and Material Purchases

If you decided to spend $100 on your happiness, would you buy something experiential like a meal out or something material like an item of clothing? Research covered here recently suggested that for long-term happiness experiences tend to beat possessions. But Leonardo Nicolao and colleagues at the University of Texas argue in the Journal of Consumer Research that this research doesn’t tell us the whole picture (Nicolao et al., 2009).

Nicolao and colleagues point out that the previous research by Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) only compared experiential and material purchases that went well, not those that went wrong. What if the clothes turn out to be money down the drain or the meal out is a complete bust from beginning to end: what does that do to our happiness?

When purchases go wrong

The researchers used three experiments to examine this question. In the first two of these participants were randomly assigned to groups in which they recalled material and experiential purchases that had either turned out well, or that had turned out badly. They were then asked how happy (or otherwise) these purchases had made them.

The results suggested that, just like Van Boven and Gilovich’s research, experiential purchases (e.g. a meal out) beat material purchases (e.g. clothes) if each turned out well. But, for some people whose scores were low on a measure of materialism, when the purchases turned out badly, it was the material goods that left them slightly happier. In contrast the highly materialistic were left less happy when their material purchases went wrong.

In a third experiment participants actually made a small experiential versus a small material purchase and then their happiness over time was measured. It was found that when participants made a material purchase that turned out badly it was easier for them to forget about it than an experiential purchase that went wrong.

Across three experiments, then, Nicolao and colleagues found evidence that when our experiential purchases go wrong we are likely to end up slightly less happy than if we had chosen a material purchase. But, as in previous research, when our purchases go well we are likely to end up significantly happier if we choose an experiential rather than a material purchase.

Experiences still beat possessions

This study provides further support for the idea that experiential purchases like restaurant trips or theatre tickets are likely to beat material purchases like clothes or electronics for our long-term happiness. Nicolao and colleagues show that this is at least partly because it takes us longer to adapt to experiential purchases than material purchases.

Experiences also beat possessions because they seem to:

  • Improve with time as we forget about all the boring moments and just recall the highlights.
  • Take on symbolic meanings, whereas those shoes are still just shoes.
  • Be very resistant to unfavourable comparisons: a wonderful moment in a restaurant is personally yours and difficult to compare, but all too soon your shoes are likely to look dated in comparison with the new fashions.

On the other hand this study does suggest that if our purchases go badly, there’s probably little to choose between experiences and possessions, with the less materialistic left slightly happier with their material purchases. This may be because unhappy experiences live longer in the mind than purchases that turn out badly.

Of course this study only compared material purchases with experiential purchases because, after all, this is the Journal of Consumer Research. But what about comparing material purchases with totally free experiences like a walk in the park, an afternoon spent lolling by the river or chatting with friends?

In these cash-strapped times it’s worth remembering that free experiences may well make us happier than possessions, it’s just that with less money we can’t hand the responsibility for our entertainment to others (restaurants, theatres, films etc.) but have to be more creative ourselves.

[Image credit: catfunt & luchilu]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 23 February 2009

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