Monday, October 3, 2011

Experiential versus material purchases: Science says that buying new shoes won’t make me happier

Material purchasing at its finest
Last weekend I went to the mall in search of a new pair of tennis shoes since I’ve run the life out of my current pair, and while I was there, I continued my never-ending quest to find the perfect pair of boots (just ask my husband – I’ve been on this quest for years). When I arrived at the mall, the parking lot was so full that I had to circle around before I could find a spot. The stores were equally crowded inside. Apparently none of these shoppers had read Leaf Van Boven’s 2005 review article highlighting the benefits of spending money on experiences over material goods. Juli first mentioned this finding in her post on the four ways to buy happiness, and I wanted to spend some more time on the topic since I still have a bit of trouble accepting the findings, particularly when I’m on a quest for a material good that I’m sure will change my life (spoiler alert - I did buy a pair of boots, though I’m not sure they’re “the ones”).

When surveying various cultures to determine what makes people happy, researchers kept stumbling upon the finding that having more didn’t equate to being happier. And people who aspire to have more are, in fact, less satisfied. For example, the more that people endorse the statement “Buying things gives me pleasure” the less satisfied they are with their lives. But, it seems, this is only true if you are spending your money to buy “things” rather than “memories.” Whether people are asked to directly compare experiential versus material purchases or to simply write about or reflect on a specific recent purchase, they report that the experiential purchase made them happier, contributed more to their overall happiness, and was “money better spent.” In the moment, Recalling their most recent vacation seems to put people in a better mood than recalling their last shoe purchase.

Why is money paid for memories better spent? Given the mounting evidence that people get more out of their experiences than material goods, researchers have turned to the question of why we get more bang for our buck when we spend our money on memories. In his review article, Van Boven suggests three different reasons why experiential purchases make us happier:

Soaking up the Experience
With experiences, we can put a positive spin on our memories. A month ago I spent a quick week vacationing in Costa Rica. Prior to leaving, I bought a couple shirts that I wore throughout the trip, all those days when I was hungry, sweaty, tired and looking forward to getting home. Now, a month later, I’m even remembering those really sweaty moments fondly, thinking about the fun I had, the new things I got to see. My shirts? They’re hanging in my closet a little worse for the wear and no amount of spin can take away the inexplicable grease stains. Van Boven argues that we can put a positive spin on even our less picturesque experiences as we recall them down the line. Material purchases, on the other hand, get worn and no amount of spinning will change that fact. So, if you like food analogies - while experiences age like a fine wine, material possessions age like a fine fruit (spoiling with time).

Experiences are less subject to social comparison.  You got a raise, your coworker got a bigger one. You bought a new house, your neighbor built a bigger one. On the other hand, Van Boven suggests that experiences are more personal and unique, and thus harder to compare. When people were asked whether they’d prefer to live in a world where they earned $50,000 a year while others earned $25,000 or a world where they earned $100,000 while others earned $200,000, about half of the people preferred to earn $50,000 if it meant they earned more than everyone else. But when asked whether they’d prefer two weeks of vacation while everyone else got one, or four weeks while everyone else got eight, only 15% of people preferred to have two weeks of vacation if it mean they got more than everyone else. 

Experiences helps us create relationships. People are generally engaging in experiences with others, whereas purchasing a new pair of boots is more likely to be a solitary affair. There is also a stigma associated with being materialistic and researchers have found that people tend to prefer to interact with other people who are “experiential” than those who are “materialistic.” Engaging in an experience together can also help people create shared memories and bond, solidifying relationships.

The good news for those of us who really want those new boots: Its all about your intentions. Although people seem to have a pretty consistence sense of what counts as an experiential purchase (dining, travel, admission fees) or a material purchase (jewelry, clothing, electronics), the researchers generally leave it up to you to decide by asking you about a recent purchase made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience (experiential) or of acquiring a material possession (material). So those new tennis shoes I bought – they could be an experience or a material purchase depending on my outlook. If I bought them thinking about the longer runs I could go on now that my feet won't hurt, I’ll probably get more out of it than if I bought them thinking about how pretty they are with their hot pink highlights that match my running shorts. And my boots? It’s a bit hard to spin them as a life experience, but I’m working on it.

So what do you think? Do you buy it? Do you think there are other reasons why an experience is better than a material good? Also, do you think there are some situations or people who can make the most of a material purchase? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!!

The article: Van Boven, L. (2005). Experientialism, Materialism, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9 (2), 132-142 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.132


  1. I think it's not a split about what you buy, but between ownership and access. The stuff you own is not really the focus of our lives, rather the things we can do, the experiences we have access to, with the stuff we have.

    A lot of experiences require material things, say going for a swim at a waterfall, like a car to take you there and shoes for the hike, so having material goods is an essential part of the experience. But you don't need to own them, owning is kind of a burden and as long as you can have access to theses objects to be there experiencing the fact it doesn't really matter if you paid for them or borrowed.

  2. That's a great distinction between ownership and access... and it helps us better understand the importance of intention. If people think about a car as a vehicle to take them to new experiences, its about the access the car gives them, and not the ownership of the car per se.

    However, I do think that there are people who get pleasure out of the experience of ownership, particularly in the U.S., where part of the "American Dream" is buying your own house, owning your own car, etc. But, whether the pleasure of ownership itself is fleeting like a material possession, or long-lasting like an experiential purchase, I'm not sure!


  3. The first thing I thought of when I was done reading this was that a lot of material purchases give people the ability to then have experiential experiences. I think it's kind of similar to what has been said above me, but for example:

    You buy a new suit and because of that suit people give you a whole list of personality attributes, and some people may now want to talk to you because you don't look like a scrub anymore and that can translate to real human/human experiential things.

    Obviously this leads to a whole hamster on a wheel scenario where you're constantly trying to cultivate your image and you're signaling tons of different things about your personality that may or may not be true--and possibly not even signaling them well.

  4. rich people´s nonsense.