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Want More in-the-Moment Happiness? Buy Experiences, Not Stuff

Spending on doing promotes more happiness than spending on having possessions.

Spending money on "doing" promotes more moment-to-moment happiness than spending money on "having" material possessions, according to new research. These findings (Kumar, Killingsworth, and Gilovich, 2020) are published in the May 2020 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

If you want more in-the-moment happiness, this research suggests that any type of "experiential purchase" will give you more bang for your buck than owning more stuff.

"People derive more satisfaction from experiential purchases (e.g., travel, entertainment, outdoor activities, meals out) than material purchases (e.g., clothing, jewelry, furniture, gadgets), both in prospect and retrospect," the authors write.

Nota bene: This research was conducted before the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Until the global threat of this coronavirus has subsided, spending money on experiential purchases that involve traveling abroad or mingling with large groups of people during a time when public health officials recommend "social distancing" would be ill-advised and/or prohibited.

Lead author Amit Kumar of the University of Texas at Austin conducted this research in collaboration with Matthew Killingsworth of the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University.

For their recent research on doing vs. having, Kumar et al. conducted two different large-scale studies involving almost 8,000 adult participants.

In the first study, 2,635 participants were sent random text messages throughout the day to monitor their emotions and asked about their momentary happiness in conjunction with purchasing behaviors. Regardless of the cost of a given item, the results showed that in-the-moment happiness was higher for participants who consumed experiential purchases versus buying material items.

In the second experiment, over 5,000 random people were asked out-of-the-blue to rate their current level of happiness. Then, they were asked, "Have you used, enjoyed, or consumed either a material or experiential purchase within the past hour?" If someone responded “yes,” he or she was asked a series of follow-up questions to gather details and data on whether their purchase was material or experiential.

“One issue that hasn’t really been examined much is what happens in the here and now—are we happier spending our money on an experience or on a material item?” Kumar said in a news release. “The basic finding from a lot of experiments is that people derive more happiness from their experiences than from their possessions."

Notably, this research is based on a demographic with enough disposable income to choose between buying material possessions or experiential purchases. In a recent interview with McCombs Big Ideas about this research, Kumar emphasizes that "study participants hailed from a specific demographic—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic parts of the world."

Wikipedia Commons
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: A pyramid chart with examples of the categories.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Presumably, based on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory and common sense, one could speculate that people living in poverty—who can barely afford their basic needs (e.g., food)—don't have the luxury of deciding whether to spend money on "doing" or "having" to feel happier.

That said, for anyone with disposable income, this research suggests that experiential consumption is associated with significantly greater happiness than both non-consumption or the consumption of material goods.

"Experiences appear to be a more promising route to enhancing well-being than possessions, irrespective of when happiness is measured," the authors conclude.

"You Don't Need Diamond Rings or 18-Karat Gold"

Do your "N-of-one" observations about in-the-moment happiness created by "doing" versus "having" corroborate the findings of Amit Kumar's latest research? In general, do you think that experiential purchases make you happier than buying material possessions?

For me, it depends on whether or not the material possession facilitates something experiential. Owning luxury items in and of itself doesn't make me exuberant unless it's something that leads to an experiential "wow" moment.

As an example, at the top of my list of material possessions that directly facilitate experience-driven happiness, I'd include any items associated with jogging outside (e.g., running shoes, warm clothes, headphones), riding a bicycle, or listening to music.

What material possessions facilitate experiential happiness for you?

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I spent all of my weekly allowance buying 45s at Woolworth's. Since a young age, I've been an audiophile; I love buying vinyl records. Having a vast collection of 45s and LPs makes me happy.

Although buying vinyl records is technically a material purchase, every analog aficionado living in a digital-download era knows that owning vinyl records and playing them on a turntable is experiential, too. (Exhibit A: Unboxing The Jimi Hendrix Experience reissue.)

In high school, I worked various minimum-wage summer jobs so I could continue buying new music every week. Instead of taking a vacation, I preferred to spend my savings on high-fidelity stereo equipment from Tech HiFi, which seemed to cost a gazillion dollars at the time.

As a teenaged music fanatic in the mid-1980s, one summer I depleted my bank account by splurging on a pair of "sonically adventurous" Cerwin-Vega D9 speakers with "chest-pounding bass."

Decades later, as I find myself semi-quarantined at home to avoid COVID-19, I'm reminded that these living room speakers still sound great! It was money well spent; I have no regrets about this material purchase. These Cerwin-Vega speakers have been providing experiential moment-to-moment happiness for over 30 years.

In writing about how I chose to spend my hard-earned money as an adolescent, I'm reminded of the "greed is good" materialism of the '80s represented in movies like Wall Street. Based on other pop culture influences from that era, I can't help but reference lyrics by Madonna (a.k.a., Material Girl) singing "Express Yourself." It's true: Most of us "don't need diamond rings or 18-karat gold" to be happy.

Anecdotally, when I filter the latest research on the moment-to-moment happiness created by spending money on "doing" vs. "having" through my own (N = 1) observations, it seems to me that there's an important caveat: If a material possession facilitates joyful experiences, it belongs in a separate category that is different from static possessions that don't have an experiential component.

Therefore, to boost your odds of feeling happy, the next time you're about to purchase a material possession, ask yourself if the item facilitates "doing" something experiential or if it will just add to household clutter or trigger buyer's remorse (Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012).

The takeaway: Say "yes" to purchases that involve doing; say "no" to spending money that leads to just having more stuff collecting dust.


Amit Kumar, Matthew A. Killingsworth, Thomas Gilovich. "Spending on Doing Promotes More Moment-To-Moment Happiness Than Spending on Having." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (First published online: February 29, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103971

Emily Rosenzweig and Thomas Gilovich. "Buyer's Remorse or Missed Opportunity? Differential Regrets for Material and Experiential Purchases." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published: August 2011) DOI: 10.1037/a0024999

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