Materialism is a dirty word. It also gets a bad rap in psychology. Studies consistently show that people who agree with statements like “You will buy things just because you want them,” tend to be:
- Less satisfied with life,
- Less happy,
- More likely to be depressed,
- More likely to be paranoid,
- More likely to be narcissistic.
Not a pretty picture, right?
But, just like studies examining the connection between success and happiness, many of the findings are correlational. As a result we can’t say for sure that materialism causes all these things, only that they’re associated. So, for better evidence, cue the experiment.
Experiential versus material purchases
Leaf Van Boven from the University of Colorado and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University carried out an intriguing experiment that gets at this question of whether materialism results in less happiness (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003).
They randomly divided students into two groups and gave each group slightly different instructions:
- This group was asked to write a description of a material purchase that had made them happy. Material purchases include things like clothing, gadgets, computers and so on. This could be either something they had bought themselves or that had been bought for them.
- The task this group had was only slightly different. They were asked to write a description of an experiential purchase that had given them pleasure. Examples of experiential purchases are meals out, admission tickets to concerts and travel.
To see how they were feeling in the moment, participants were given surreptitious measures both before and after writing these short descriptions. Then, after about a week, the same participants were given back their own descriptions of their purchases and asked to reflect on it. Again, they were asked to report on their feelings in the moment.
Comparing these two groups provided a way of comparing how participants felt about two different types of purchases. The results showed that participants felt better when they were contemplating their experiential purchases than their material purchases.
Thinking about experience
As a result of this experiment, Van Boven & Gilovich predicted that people spend more time overall contemplating their experiential rather than material purchases. To test this out they asked participants to think about experiential and material purchases they were particularly happy with. Then they were asked which they thought about more often. The results clearly showed it was the experiential purchases people thought about more often (83%).
Why do experiences fare better than possessions?
It seems, then, that at some level we understand that our experiential purchases give us more pleasure than our material purchases. But why is that? Van Boven (2005) suggests three reasons:
1. Experiences improve with time (possessions don’t).
The reason why experiences improve with time may be because it is possible to think about experiences in a more abstract manner than possessions. For example if you think back to a fantastic summer from your youth, you might easily remember an abstract sense of warm sunshine and exuberance, but you’re less likely to remember exactly what you did day-by-day. On a moment-by-moment basis you might have been quite bored, although you’ll tend not to remember that.
Material possessions are harder to think about in an abstract sense. The car you bought is still a car, that great new jacket you picked up cheap is still just a jacket. It’s more likely the experience of that summer has taken on a symbolic meaning that can live longer in your memory than a possession.
2. Experiences are resistant to unfavourable comparisons
It’s well established that social comparisons can have a huge effect on how we view what might seem like positive events. One striking example is the finding that people prefer to earn $50,000 a year while everyone else earns $25,000, instead of earning $100,000 themselves and having other people earn $200,000 (Solnick & Hemenway, 1998).
In other words it’s not about how much we earn, it’s about how much we earn in comparison to other people. It’s the social comparison, then, not the actual amount of money, that affects how we feel about our earnings.
A similar effect is seen for possessions. When there’s so many flatscreen HD TVs to choose from, it’s easy to make unfavourable comparisons between our choice and the others available (check out Barry Schwartz on why too much choice is bad for us).
Experience, however, seems to be more resistant to these sorts of unfavourable comparisons. To explain this phenomenon, Van Boven puts forward the idea that it is because of the unique nature of experience. It’s more difficult to make an unfavourable comparison when there is nothing directly comparable. After all, each of our youthful summers is different (even if only a little).
I also think it’s hard to really compare our own experiences with those of other people. Comparing possessions, however, is generally easy.
3. Experiences have more social value
There are two reasons experiences have more social value than possessions. First, experiences tend to encourage social relationships and increased social relationships are good for our happiness. Second, it is more socially acceptable to discuss our experiences with others. People who bang on about their possessions are considered much less likeable than those who talk about their holiday adventures.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that this type of research is at an early stage. Van Boven points to a couple of potential problems yet to be investigated:
- The experiments examined here looked at short-term emotions – will these short-term emotions add up to long-term happiness?
- Highly materialistic people might actually get more pleasure out of material purchases than experiences.
Despite these limitations, it seems that along with experimental evidence, there are also some good psychological reasons why experiences are more likely to make us happy than material possessions. On top of this, at some level we do seem to understand that experiences probably beat possessions in terms of happiness.
Set against this is the fact that we clearly live in a society awash with materialism, where objects are valued way beyond their possible contribution to our happiness. So how can this conflict possibly be resolved?
One answer to this question is that while we’re likely to think that other people are materialist, we defend our own purchases as necessary and at worst, indulgent. After all, materialism is a dirty word. A dirty word that’s on everyone’s minds.
Solnick, S.J., & Hemenway, D.(1998). Is more always better? A survey on positional concerns. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 37, 373-383.
Van Boven, L. (2005) Experientialism, Materialism, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9, 132-142.
Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202.