Science says people are happier buying experiences, not things

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Science says people are happier buying experiences, not things

Psychologists have been scrutinising the relationship between money and happiness since a 1973 paper by US economist Richard Easterlini that famously found the former having no lasting effect on the latter.

Surveys confirm that experiential purchases make people happier than buying material things.

A growing body of research now suggests that - after paying for necessary expenses like housing and food - people should spend money on experiences instead of material objects to be happier in the long term.

In two surveys by Thomas Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven in 2003, respondents said "experiential purchases" (in which people sought to acquire a life experience) made them happier than buying material things.

Just thinking about their experiences put people in a better mood than thinking about their things, the psychologists found, theorising that experiences were "more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one's identity, and contribute to successful social relationships"ii.

When Professor Gilovich more recently asked Cornell University students about their significant purchases, study participants said purchases like "a trip to Africa" or "Whistler with friends" were more connected to their sense of self than new skis or a Blackberryiii,iv.

It's not just the experience that is enjoyable. What happens before and afterwards also makes people happy, research shows.

People tend to forget little annoyances - itchy bug bites on safari, for example - so the memory of that trip to Africa may have been better than the experience itselfii.

Looking forward to an experience is also typically more exciting than waiting to receive a material objectv. Experiences are more abstract than things, and they're more difficult to compare with other possible options, so people are also less likely to suffer buyer's remorsevi.

Memories last forever

Ryan Howell of San Francisco State University's Personality and Well-Being Lab explains that life experiences make people happier in the long-term because "we don't tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object"vii.

According to Dr. Howell, extra spending money can buy happiness - but only if what you buy satisfies "high-order psychological needs" like autonomy, relatedness and competenceviii. In other words, the purchase should make a person feel in control of their actions, connected to other people, and closer to achieving their goals.

The experience is fantastic - but so is looking forward to and remembering it.

In a 2009 survey of students at his university, Dr. Howell found that experiences typically did meet the need for relatedness. In addition, participants were more likely to say that an experience, rather than material object, was money well spent, made them happy, made others happy, and made them "feel more alive"viii.

But there are some exceptions. Richer and better-educated individuals tend to derive more happiness from experiences than thingsii. Buying experiences may also not be as rewarding for people who spend mainly to impress othersix.

The distinction between an experience and a material object is also somewhat flexible; in their 2013 book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, behavioural scientists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton pointed out that one might buy a book for the experience of reading it, or to decorate the shelves of a living room.

iEasterlin RA, Does money buy happiness? , Public Interest. 1973;30:3–10, viewed 13 May 2015,

iiVan Boven L, Gilovich T, To do or to have? That is the question, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003, Vol. 85, No. 6, 1193-1202, viewed 13 May 2015,

iiiCarter, TJ, Gilovich T, I am what I do, not what I have: The differential centrality of experiential and material purchases to the self, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012, Vol 102, No 6, 1304-1317, viewed 13 May 2015,

ivDunn E, Norton M 2013, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, viewed 13 May 2015.

vKumar A, Killingsworth MA, Gilovich T, Waiting for merlot: Anticipatory consumption of experiential and material purchases. Psychological Science October 2014, vol. 25, no.10, 1924-1931, viewed 13 May 2015,

viCarter TJ, Gilovich T, The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2010, Vol. 98, No.1, 146-159, viewed 13 May 2015,

viiRyan T Howell, Social Psychology Network, viewed 13 May 2015,

viiiHowell RT, Hill G, The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison, The Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 4, No. 6, November 2009, 511-522, viewed 13 May 2015,

ixRyan T. Howell, Materialists not happier when purchasing life experiences, 12 March 2013, viewed 13 May 2015,