Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy interesting experiences. Psychologists have shown that purchases of experiences tend to make people happier than purchases of material goods.
To do or to have? is how researchers from University of Colorado at Boulder framed this question in a 2003 paper. They found that, generally, “to do” is the answer. A series of experiments they conducted established that purchases “made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience” usually make people happier than purchases of material things.
Splurging on a vacation, in other words, is more likely to bring happiness than splurging on a fancy computer, all else being equal.
But why do experiential purchases tend to make people happier than materialistic ones? Researchers have found several possible reasons.
First, experiences are generally more relevant to our sense of self than material possessions. A 2012 study showed that, in a variety of different contexts, people saw experiences they’d purchased as being more a part of who they were as people than material items were. People were more likely to integrate experiential purchases into their life story and to cherish memories of these purchases.
Besides being more intertwined with our sense of identity, experiences give us something to talk about. Research published in 2015 found that people talk about experiences they’ve bought more than material items, and that taking away people’s ability to talk about experiential purchases would decrease the happiness they derive from these purchases.
Then there’s the fact that experiential purchases are more likely to cultivate a sense of gratitude. It turns out that people tend to spontaneously express feeling grateful more often for experiential purchases than for materialistic ones. Compared to materialistic purchases, experiential purchases also make people more generous.
As it turns out, the pleasure one gets from an experiential purchase begins before the experience itself. One study found that people feel more happiness in anticipation of their experiential purchases than their materialistic ones, leading the researchers to conclude that “waiting for experiences tends to be more positive than waiting for possessions.”
Clearly, there are several possible upsides to buying experiences, from feelings of gratitude to a sense of anticipation to having something to talk about. But there’s a major caveat: experiential purchases only make you happier if you have the money to spare.
In fact, for people who are in the position of having to be more careful with their money, the advantage of buying experiences over buying possessions seems to disappear. A study published this month in Psychological Science showed that when people’s socioeconomic status is taken into consideration, only people in higher socioeconomic classes derive more happiness from experiential purchases than materialistic purchases. Buying experiences might increase happiness, then, but this effect depends on having a certain amount of financial freedom.