What makes you happy may depend on your social class.
Posted June 1, 2018 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
Imagine you are given $20,000 to spend however you like. Assuming that your goal is to increase your happiness, should you spend more on purchasing experiences (e.g., going on vacation) or things (e.g., clothes, new electronics, etc.)?
According to a new study, the answer depends on your social class.1
Previous research shows that life experiences (in comparison with material goods) make us happier, even if some of these experiences are not as pleasant as other ones (e.g., doing taxes as opposed to listening to music or making love).2
Why? Because we have a tendency to adapt to things quickly; experiences, on the other hand, can be quite memorable and can be relived over and over again.
Furthermore, experiential purchases are more closely connected to one's sense of self; our accumulated experiences seem to define who we are.
Experiences are also less strongly associated with regret and rumination. For instance, we might ruminate on everything else we could have bought with the money we spent on, say, a Jet Ski.
In summary, then, previous research shows that people should try to accumulate experiences as opposed to material goods if they want to be happy.
But this may not be good advice for everyone, according to a new study.1
Lee and colleagues suggest that purchasing experiences results in greater happiness mainly for people in higher social classes.
Higher-class people have access to more resources (occupational, financial, etc.) and are less concerned with meeting their basic needs. As a result, they are more focused on themselves and on pursuing self-expression and self-development. Given the close link between experiences and the self, it is natural that higher-class people should feel happier from obtaining more experiences, as opposed to goods.
Lower-class individuals, on the other hand, are more concerned with making the best use of their limited financial resources; they are often happier purchasing materials than experiences because things can “provide practical benefits each time they are used, are physically long-lasting, and often possess resale value.”1
To further investigate the effects of class on the association between the purchase of experience/goods and happiness, Lee and colleagues conducted several studies:
They began with a meta-analysis of research on happiness among college students. They analyzed 23 studies, finding that students at private colleges (as opposed to public ones) and colleges with higher tuition (as opposed to lower tuition) were more likely to derive their happiness from experiences than things.
The next study, a comparative survey, involved researchers asking participants to compare a recent material and experiential purchase; the results showed that lower-class participants considered the purchase of material items more conducive to their happiness.
In the following investigation, the participants were asked to rate their level of happiness after recalling either a material good or an experiential purchase. Again, the outcome showed that higher-class participants derived higher levels of happiness from experiential purchases; ones in lower classes derived similar levels of happiness from both material or experiential buying.
In the last study, researchers placed the participants into either a resource-abundant context (associated with the higher-class environment) or resource-poor context (associated with the lower-class environment).
The participants were then asked to imagine that their monthly income had either increased or decreased by 50 percent. They then wrote for three minutes about how they would create a budget based on this new income.
The participants were instructed to imagine that six months had passed; afterward, they reported on their comparative purchase happiness based on thinking about purchases made earlier or ones they are anticipating making now.
The results showed that imagining that they had more income resulted in participants finding experiences more conducive to their happiness. Less income, on the other hand, was associated with similar levels of happiness from both material and experiential purchases.
In summary, these studies show that the reliable association between experiential purchases and increased happiness is only present in people in higher social classes. Individuals in lower classes might gain happiness from both types of purchases, and sometimes mainly from buying material goods.
The authors warn that criticism of materialism and “the popular recommendation for experiential purchases might lead lower-class individuals away from the happiness they could achieve from material goods.”
So perhaps the lesson is that higher-class people can afford to spend that $20,000 on, say, an African safari. But people in lower classes—though they, too, enjoy accumulating rare and wonderful experiences—might find more happiness from, say, renovating the kitchen or spending that money on fixing the roof. The safari will have to wait.
1. Lee, J. C., Hall, D. L., & Wood, W. (in press). Experiential or material purchases? Social class determines purchase happiness. Psychological Science. Doi: 10.1177/0956797617736386
2. Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21, 115–125