Since man invented money, the question has been asked: Can money buy happiness? Recently, research has given us a much better understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel. Economists have been studying the links between income and happiness across nations, and psychologists have performed innumerable studies to discover our true feelings about money. 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, and more likely to be depressed.
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...