What Makes Children Happier? Material Gifts or Experiences?
New research shows how enjoyment of gifts changes as kids age.
Posted December 3, 2020
If you have ever wondered what types of gifts kids remember and enjoy the most, recent research provides some noteworthy answers.
Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a University of Chicago professor and study author, set the stage for the research study by describing an elaborate venue she created for her son’s 6th birthday party. The “cosmic bounce party” was complete with inflatable structures, special-effect lighting, games, food, and everything else that would assure the birthday experience of a lifetime. After the party, Chaplin asked her son what the best part of the party was. Without hesitating, he said, “All the presents!” His Star Wars Legos™ made him happier than anything.
The fact is that 6-year-old children derive more happiness from material gifts than from their experiences. Chaplin and her colleagues conducted four studies with children and teens ages 3-17 to learn at what age children gain more pleasure from experiences than from material gifts or goods. Their research study, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, uses a child development framework to understand how these changes are facilitated by increases in cognition, particularly a child’s memory and ability to understand the emotional states of others.
Until now, research on the consumption of goods vs. experiences has been limited to adults. This is also the first study to examine how children’s experiences are related to happiness.
How the Studies Were Conducted
The first two studies were field studies, each with between 74 and 84 children ages 5-16 that were enrolled at a martial arts school. Children were asked to pick from a list of 16 material goods and 16 experiences that might be offered as prizes in their program. Parents were also asked to predict which goods or experiences their children would choose.
In the third study, 56 children ages 3-12 participated in unstructured, open-ended interviews that sought to discover what makes them happy and why. Presented with a list of tangible goods and intangible experiences, they associated them with feelings of happiness in their own words.
The fourth study expanded the age range to include adolescents 13-17 years old to test the proposition from the previous studies that older children might derive more happiness from experiences than from goods. It also included expanded measures of happiness. This study involved 240 children, ages 3-17.
The Study Results
Using a variety of methodologies, these combined studies provided evidence that young children do not derive more happiness from experiences than from material goods. In fact, the opposite is true, whether children are looking back at their experiences or anticipating future experiences. Young children clearly indicate that material goods give them more pleasure.
As children age, so do the ways in which they discover happiness through gifts of goods or experiences. The pleasure they derive from experiences progressively increases as they get older, while the happiness they receive from material goods does not. In later adolescence, the joy kids receive from experiences surpasses the joy they derive from material goods, much like in the adult population.
How Does Research Explain Kids’ Shift in Happiness From Goods to Experiences?
To answer this important question, the researchers of this study connected the dots from their findings to the research in child development. They discovered important cognitive skills needed by children before they were able to shift from a preference for material goods over experiences.
An experience is much more complex than a material good. Experiences are abstract, difficult to compare, and involve social interactions. To fully appreciate and derive happiness from experiences, children require cognitive sophistication.
This sophistication of thinking involves higher comprehension and memory skills as well as the ability to appreciate past experiences—skills that are not generally developed in young children. Memory, for example, is essential to learning and is necessary to reflect on experience. As children age and are better able to understand their experiences, they also get better at predicting the kinds of experiences that will make them happy in the future.
Another aspect of development that predicts happiness from life experiences is the ability to understand how other people feel. Since experiences most often involve social interactions, it takes higher-level social and emotional skills to fully appreciate experiences. On the contrary, the enjoyment of material goods requires little or no social interaction.
Implications for Parents and Gift-Giving
It is important to understand that even young children derive happiness from their experiences, even though retrospectively they gravitate toward material goods. One only needs to watch a child at Disneyland or at a birthday party to know that they feel happy in the moment. However, when the event is past, their thoughts are more dominated by the material gifts or souvenirs they can see and touch.
From a developmental perspective, the ability to derive happiness from life experiences is critical to adult happiness and well-being. One way to build a healthy foundation during childhood and adolescence is to encourage young people to reflect on their experiences. In addition to asking “What was the best part of the party?” dig deeper into the experience. Ask for the child’s perspective. What did it feel like to bounce on an inflatable structure? How did special-effect lighting change the experience? Encourage the child to imagine how his friends felt about the party. These kinds of conversations help children remember moments of happy experiences and project them into the future.
Chaplin, L. N., Lowrey, T. M., Ruvio, A. A., Shrum, L. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2020). Age differences in children's happiness from material goods and experiences: The role of memory and theory of mind. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 37(3), 572-586, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2020.01.004.