Buy More Experiences and Less Stuff

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Experiences improve with time, resist unfavourable comparisons and are often mentally revisited (unlike stuff).

Which of these two types of spending do you think makes you happier, purchases that are made with the primary intention of acquiring a:

  • life experience: an event or series of events that one lives through,
  • material good: a tangible object that is kept in one’s possession.

When thousands of Americans were asked this question, 57% said experiences make them happier and 34% said things make them happier (Carter & Gilovich, 2010). For once the majority is right.

You can check out the research in these two posts in which I discuss the studies which demonstrate:

Many of the reasons why are discussed in more detail in the articles above, but here’s a summary with a couple of extras thrown in:

  • Experiences improve with time because they tend to take on new meanings in our minds, but things just tend to get old.
  • People mentally revisit their experiences more than things they’ve bought (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). So experiences keep providing pleasure long after the event itself.
  • Experiences resist unfavourable comparisons because each is unique. Things, though, are easy to compare unfavourably because they’re similar to other things.
  • Also, because experiences tend to be unique, we adapt more slowly to them and adaptation or habituation is the enemy of happiness (Nicolao et al., 2009).
  • Experiences tend to be social and social events (generally) make us happy. Things are often not that social.

The boundary between experiences and things is far from clear-cut. For example houses are things but because we live in them, they are also partly experiences. Still, the general point holds that the more experiential something is, the happier it is likely to make us.

So if you want to cheer yourself up, make sure you spend cash on something more experiential than material. You might not be able to hold the result in your hand, but it will live longer in your mind.

Image credit: Mouleesha

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: 10 November 2011

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