Men fancy that external goods are the cause of happiness…[but] leisure of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment in life. – Aristotle
Take a moment to consider this question: If you had the choice between a new car or an equally priced trip around the world, which would you choose?—the long-lasting possession or the fleeting experience?
According to the research, you should start seeing if you can’t book that aisle seat…
In a popular paper (now almost 15 years old) researchers distinguished between two types of consumer purchases: material and experiential purchases.
A material purchase is one made with the primary intention of acquiring a material good, like jewelry, a new computer, or a sofa. An experiential purchase is one made with the primary intention of acquiring a new life experience, like going to a concert, to the theater, or even on a nature tour.
And when researchers asked over 1,000 Americans to recall either a material or experiential purchase (controlling for the cost of that purchase), they found some pretty powerful results:
Experiential (vs. material) purchases produced more happiness when thinking about them, were rated as a better investment, and contributed more significantly to people’s overall life satisfaction. And in fact, when outside evaluators reviewed the different kinds of purchases the participants listed, they predicted that the experience (vs. the material) purchases would make the participants much happier.
Researchers contend that experiential purchases have this advantage over material purchases for three primary reasons: (1) experiential purchases are more unique and thus evoke fewer comparisons between consumers (i.e., we don’t try to “keep up with the Jones’” for experiences); (2) experiential purchases are more central to our sense of identity; and (3) experiential purchases foster greater social connection.
However, it’s not only the purchase itself that results in better outcomes for experiential purchases; the anticipation of that purchase is also better for experiential ones.
For example, researchers looked through news articles between 2011 and 2013 for any stories on people waiting in long lines, categorizing the waits for either an experiential or material purchase. Afterward, the researchers then examined the reported behavior and mood of the people in those lines.
Impressively, those waiting for a material purchase were significantly more likely to engage in bad behaviors, like breaking windows or rioting. Whereas if people were waiting in line for an experiential product, they were significantly more likely to engage in good behaviors, like singing or playing games.
When conducting experimental studies on this, the researchers discovered that when waiting for a material purchase, we feel very impatient; however, when waiting for an experiential product, we actually feel excitement.
In fact, when offered the choice between having a material (vs. experiential) purchase in the moment (vs. the future), people much readily prefer the material purchase in the moment, and the experiential purchase in the future. They will even intentionally delay the experiential purchase to benefit from the pleasure of this extended excitement!
However, experiential purchases don’t always result in more positive outcomes. So, can you predict when that might be the case?
When things. Go. Bad.
Some research suggests that if you have a material purchase go bad, it doesn’t feel as negative as when experiential purchase goes bad. For example, buying a car that doesn’t work as well as you hoped doesn’t feel nearly as bad as purchasing a trip that doesn’t go well. Part of the reason for this is that we adapt to material purchases faster than we do experiential ones. That is, both the positivity and negativity associated with a material purchase fades away much faster than the positivity or negativity that comes with an experiential one.
So what should you do when it comes to spending that leftover paycheck? I think you get it by now 😉
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: In all of the previously mentioned studies, the purchases all revolved around receiving it. But what happens when it comes to giving purchases? That is, as present, is it better to give a materialistic or experiential purchase? What does your intuition say? What would be some concerns with one gift type over the other?
Kumar, A., Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Waiting for Merlot anticipatory consumption of experiential and material purchases. Psychological science, 25(10), 1-8.
Nicolao, L., Irwin, J. R., & Goodman, J. K. (2009). Happiness for sale: do experiential purchases make consumers happier than material purchases?. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(2), 188-198.
Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(6), 1193.