Buying Happiness

Choosing between a new sweater and a pair of concert tickets? Buy the tickets, suggests a study on whether our spending habits are likely to make us happy.

Philosophers since Aristotle have claimed that experiences fulfill us more than material goods. To test this claim, a pair of psychology professors examined discretionary spending on material purchases (such as jewelry or clothing) and experiential ones (such as vacations or tickets to a concert). In a nationwide phone survey of 1,279 adults, respondents were much more likely to claim that a prior experiential purchase made them happier than a material one—57 percent versus 34 percent—even after accounting for differences in price.

Of course, some items—such as books or sports gear—are both material and experiential. And one person's splurge may be another's must-have. So the researchers simply asked respondents to think of purchases they'd made "with the intention of advancing their own happiness."

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The researchers, Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, found some demographic differences in strength of preference: A higher percentage of women, for example, were happier with experiences than were men. Individuals with higher incomes and more education especially tended to prefer experiential spending—perhaps because the less discretionary income you have, the more any purchase will improve your quality of life. Even so, not a single segment reported being happier with their material buys.

Unlike possessions, our experiences get better with time. "We redefine and reconstrue them as we retell them, and they continue to be a part of who we are," says Van Boven. The research appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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