Do experiences or material goods make us happier?

February 23, 2009

Should I spend money on a vacation or a new computer? Will an experience or an object make me happier? A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research says it depends on different factors, including how materialistic you are.

Even though conventional wisdom says choose the vacation, authors Leonardo Nicolao, Julie R. Irwin (both University of Texas at Austin), and Joseph K. Goodman (Washington University, St. Louis) say the answer is more complicated than previously thought.

"Dating as early as David Hume and through Tibor Scitovsky and many others, the sentiment has been that individuals will be happier if they spend their money on experiences (theatre, concerts, and vacations) as opposed to material purchases (fancy cars, bigger houses, and gadgets)" write the authors.

The authors say this advice holds true for purchases that turn out well. But when it comes to negative purchases (a disappointing sofa, a bad vacation), their research shows that experiences decrease happiness more than material goods. "In other words, we show that the recommendation should include a caveat: Purchases that decrease happiness are less damaging when they are material purchases than when they are experiential purchases," the authors explain.

Highly materialistic individuals, the authors found, were equally happy with their positive purchases and equally unhappy with negative purchases whether they were experiences or material goods. The researchers also found that emotional intensity decreases more quickly after material purchases than experiential ones.

Consumers should be especially cautious when choosing among experiences, say the authors, because making a negative choice can lead to lasting unhappiness with the experience. Risky material purchases, on the other hand, are less potentially damaging.

Overall, the authors agree with conventional wisdom: "Given a good probability of a positive experience, our research echoes past research in suggesting that money is well spent on vacations, concerts, amusement parks, and restaurants over comparably priced objects and trinkets," they conclude.

More information: Leonardo Nicolao, Julie R. Irwin, and Joseph K. Goodman. "Happiness for Sale: Do Experiential or Material Purchases Lead to Greater Happiness?" Journal of Consumer Research: August 2009.

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Turning food waste into tires: Eggshells, tomato peels add strength to sustainable rubber

Related Stories

Business group: China tech plan threat to foreign firms

March 7, 2017

China is violating its free-trade pledges by pressing foreign makers of electric cars and other goods to share technology under an industry development plan that is likely to shrink access to its markets, a business group ...

Computing with biochemical circuits made easy

February 23, 2017

Electronic circuits are found in almost everything from smartphones to spacecraft and are useful in a variety of computational problems from simple addition to determining the trajectories of interplanetary satellites. At ...

WikiLeaks reveals CIA trove alleging wide-scale hacking

March 7, 2017

WikiLeaks published thousands of documents Tuesday described as secret files about CIA hacking tools the government employs to break into users' computers, mobile phones and even smart TVs from companies like Apple, Google, ...

Recommended for you

Scientists make new discovery about bird evolution

March 24, 2017

In a new paper published in National Science Review, a team of scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and ...

Study into who is least afraid of death

March 24, 2017

A new study examines all robust, available data on how fearful we are of what happens once we shuffle off this mortal coil. They find that atheists are among those least afraid of dying... and, perhaps not surprisingly, ...

Mathematical framework explains diverse plant stem forms

March 23, 2017

It is well known that as plants grow, their stems and shoots respond to outside signals like light and gravity. But if plants all have similar stimuli, why are there so many different plant shapes? Why does a weeping willow ...

How chewing like a cow helped early mammals thrive

March 23, 2017

You probably haven't given much thought to how you chew, but the jaw structure and mechanics of almost all modern mammals may have something to do with why we're here today. In a new paper published this week in Scientific ...

'Pay to publish' schemes rampant in science journals

March 22, 2017

Dozens of scientific journals appointed a fictive scholar to their editorial boards on the strength of a bogus resume, researchers determined to expose "pay to publish" schemes reported Wednesday.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

THEY
not rated yet Feb 23, 2009
Yeah, I just can't be happy without my 41 foot yacht, my HUGE plasma screen tv, my summer beach home, my McMansion house in yuppieville OR my mercedes. If it wasn't for my owning all of that stuff, I would simply HAVE to throw myself off a bridge! I am so unhappy when I don't have my purchases!

Geez, what society has stepped in! And these people get PAID to do this kind of research?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.