These types of purchases will make you happier, study finds

Every now and then it’s important to treat yourself. We all work hard to achieve our goals, maintain successful careers, and of course, make sure those bills are paid on time. In the midst of all that, it can be easy to forget about doing something nice for ourselves. If you’re on the lookout for your next splurge, the findings of a new study conducted at The University of Texas at Austin could seriously sway your next impulse buy.

In a nutshell, they’ve concluded that purchasing experiences over material goods almost always leads to more feelings of happiness. 

There’s a definite psychological effect at play here; the grass is always greener. When we’re thinking about buying an expensive new jacket, watch, or video game system, we all tend to envision ourselves post-purchase as happy and content. Most of the time, once we’ve actually purchased said item, it hardly compares to what we built up in our head.

Of course, experiences can be the same way. Imagine you bought tickets to a music festival and assumed it would be the best weekend of your life. Well, it rained during the festival and you came down with a cold. Not exactly a weekend for the record books. Still, as time goes on you’ll probably have some fond memories of hanging out with friends, running for cover from the rain, and sneezing your way through your favorite band’s set. Therein lies the difference between purchasing experiences and physical items. For better or worse, we own our experiences, while oftentimes the goods we buy end up owning us.

“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?” Comments lead author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at UT, in a press release. “The basic finding from a lot of experiments is that people derive more happiness from their experiences than from their possessions.”

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University collaborated on this project as well.

In all, they collected 2,535 adults to take part in the study, all of whom were randomly assigned to either material goods or experiential purchases group. All of the subjects were periodically sent text messages designed to assess their emotions and spending habits. People in the material group bought items like jewelry, clothing, or furniture, while those in the experiential group spent their money on sporting events, restaurants, and a variety of other experiences.

Regardless of cost, participants who purchased experiences reported feeling happier in both the short and long term. 

“It would be unfair to compare a shirt to a trip, but when we account for price, we still see this result where experiences are associated with more happiness,” Kumar notes.

Not all consumers are the same. Everyone has their own spending habits and budgets, so in order to account for these variations, the research team held a second experiment including over 5,000 people. This time, participants were asked to rate their happiness and then indicate if they had used, consumed, or enjoyed a material or experiential purchase over the previous 60 minutes. If the subject had made a purchase within that time frame, they were asked to provide further details.

“We still observed the same effect,” Kumar explains. “When the very same person was consuming an experience, that was associated with more happiness.”

In summation, the study’s authors believe that buying tangible experiences over material goods makes people happier both before, during, and after said event takes place. A new Xbox or TV may last longer than a night out at the opera, but memories endure far longer than the perceived value of virtually all material possessions. 

“If you want to be happier, it might be wise to shift some of your consumption away from material goods and a bit more toward experiences,” Kumar concludes. “That would likely lead to greater well-being.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.