Don’t Buy Things, buy Experiences

Can money make us happy if we spend it on the right purchases? A new psychology study suggests that buying life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness for both the consumer and those around them.

The study demonstrates that experiential purchases, such as a meal out or theater tickets, result in increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and vitality – a feeling of being alive. No matter which wristwatch one buys, even if it is entirely satisfactory, it can still be compared to one in a store display — encouraging counter-factual thoughts about what it would be like with their positions reversed. After returning from vacation, in contrast, it is not so easy to compare a hypothetical Vail ski run with the waves actually ridden in Fiji.

Over one’s lifetime, it is his or her experiences that are more valuable than any product ever owned or purchased. The study revealed that people often feel buyer’s remorse, stress, and a sense that they may not have purchased the best or right product after shopping. In contrast, after a vacation, hike, bike ride, or game of softball in the park, there are rarely negative feelings or associations with these experiences.

If you’re trying to buy happiness, you’d be better off putting your money toward a tropical island get-away than a new computer, a new study suggests. The results show that people’s satisfaction with their life-experience purchases — anything from seeing a movie to going on a vacation — tends to start out high and go up over time. On the other hand, although they might be initially happy with that shiny new iPhone or the latest in fashion, their satisfaction with these items wanes with time.

Our experiences are unique to us and cannot be compared to the experiences of others. But when we have stuff, it’s all too easy to compare what we have to what someone else has and to feel like our own possessions are being judged by our social circle. People are more likely to mull over their material purchases than they are experiential ones, second-guessing themselves about whether they really made the best choice. They tend to think of experiences more on their own terms, rather than in comparison with other things. It’s easier for them to decide on an experiential purchase than a material one. They’re more upset if they learn that someone else got a better deal, or that a better option exists, for a material purchase than for an experience-related one.

It’s worth noting that possessions that offer a limited amount of happiness and enjoyment won’t last forever, either. Satisfaction with a purchase could also come down to mindset. When participants in one study thought of material purchases, such as a music CD, as an experience (many hours of enjoyable listening), they were more satisfied than those who viewed the purchase as just a material item. Your favorite sweater will eventually become threadbare, the car you thought you had to have will one day no longer run, and your gadgets and electronics expire faster than some of the food in your pantry. Instead of investing your time and money into stuff that is unfulfilling and will wear out sooner or later, focus on trying new things and building important relationships.

In another study, 142 participants were asked to think about either a material or experience-related purchase they had made that cost at least $50. Then, they answered questions about: how difficult the decision was to make; how concerned they were that they made the right choice; and how satisfied they were with the purchase initially and at present. The people who thought of a material purchase were significantly more likely to report feeling concerned about the buy and less satisfied with their choice at present than those who had recalled an experiential purchase.

A third study involved 164 participants who were asked how they felt about a hypothetical situation in which they had made a purchase, but later found out that other, superior choices existed. They imagined either buying a material good, such as a wristwatch, laptop, MP3 player or a pair of jeans, or an experience, including a meal at a restaurant, a movie viewing, or an island vacation.

Subjects who imagined a material purchase were more likely to be disturbed by the availability of better options, and in turn, reported diminished satisfaction with the buy, than those who imagined an experiential purchase. And participants were more likely to be jealous of a rival’s superior purchase if the item in question was a possession rather than an experience. Since materials are more easily compared with other things than experiences are, material buys bring more concern and less happiness than experiential ones.

If you’re not convinced that money spent on new experiences is far more valuable than what you spend on stuff, consider this: when we experience something new, our brain processes that information differently than it processes familiar situations. The way in which the brain handles new experiences changes how we perceive time. Familiar information is quickly recorded in the mind and makes it seem like time is passing more quickly; new experiences, however, are processed more slowly which makes time feel like it is moving slower.

The value of having time slow down as we age can’t be overstated. If we want to get the most out of the rest of our years, we need to seek new experiences.

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