Consumerism is in the air this time of year. There may be no better evidence of our consumerist habits than the barrage of goods currently advertised on-line, in newspaper supplements, and, of course, in store windows. But there has been some recent pushback on this front. Last year, the outdoor retailer REI garnered national attention when it announced that its stores would be closed on Black Friday and encouraged customers to explore nature instead—a notion succinctly captured by the hashtag “opt outside.” This year, even the Mall of America changed its usual course and decided it would be closed on November 24th. Minnesota, the state that houses this Mecca of materialism, now provides an alternative to shopping for possessions by offering complimentary admission to parks; other states, such as California, Colorado, and Oregon, have followed suit with similar policies.
What’s behind these trends? A lot of things, surely, including research (some of it conducted by us) showing that people tend to get more enduring satisfaction from the money they spend on experiences than from the material possessions they buy.
This work focuses on the distinction between experiential purchases (money spent on doing, like on travel, tickets to performances, and fees to visit museums or nature preserves) and material purchases (money spent on having, like on clothing, jewelry, furniture, and electronic gadgets). We have found that people tend to be happier when they invest in experiences because experiential purchases connect people to one another, enhance their sense of self, and, relative to material consumption, tend to be appreciated for their intrinsic value rather than how they compare to what others have.
When we’ve discussed this research with friends and family, a common reaction is an insistence that material goods are nevertheless a better use of one’s money because they last. While it’s typically true that possessions are indeed longer-lasting physically, experiences tend to last longer psychologically. Through a series of experiments, we’ve learned that the hedonic value people get from consuming experiences extends across a broad time course.
For instance, we’ve found that relative to goods, experiences typically provide people with more anticipatory delight. Looking forward to experiential purchases tends to be more pleasant, more exciting, and less tinged with impatience. Also, after experiences have ended, they continue to live on in people’s memories and in the stories they tell. Our studies have established, for example, that people talk to others more about the experiences they’ve bought than the material items they’ve purchased. Compared to possessions, experiences provide fodder for our conversations, thereby enhancing memory and facilitating social interaction.
Our latest research, forthcoming in the journal Emotion, takes this a step further and establishes that experiential consumption endures in other ways as well. More specifically, experiences live on because people feel grateful for them after they’re over. In a series of experiments, we find that feelings of gratitude are sparked more by trips people have taken, events they’ve attended, and meals they’ve eaten than by the “stuff” they’ve bought. In other words, people are often more grateful for what they’ve done than for what they have.
Gratitude is worth cultivating for several reasons, one being that it facilitates social cohesion. Indeed, in our most recent work we find that the utility gleaned from buying experiences instead of things can extend outward, by inspiring people to be more generous to others. To examine this, we gave participants in an experiment real money and assigned them to the role of the “decider,” which put them in the position of divvying up cash between themselves and another person (whom they’d never meet) any way they pleased.
Although they could have kept all of it for themselves, study participants were more charitable—altruistically giving more money to the anonymous stranger—when they had just reflected on a gratifying experience than when they had been instructed to think about a significant possession. The positive outcomes that come from experiential consumption thus apply not only to the consumers of those purchases themselves, but also to others around them.
This suggests that shifting expenditures a bit more towards experiences and a bit less towards material possessions could advance the greater social good in addition to improving individual well-being. Experiential pursuits are a simple, easy-to-implement way in which daily life can be enhanced. Given our findings, we encourage policymakers to think about ways to make it easier for those in their communities to tilt their spending a bit further in the direction of experiences. People can’t bike, hike, swim, or take in a show without the civic infrastructure that allows them to do so, and so investments in trails, parks, beaches, and performance spaces (as well as greater funding for the arts) might steer people towards experiential consumption. Measures like sale-priced entry to state parks represent a good start.
It’s a bit strange to have one of the biggest shopping days of the year follow right after the one we call “Thanksgiving.” People often say that they want the sentiments evoked by that holiday to last well beyond the weekend. After all, it is well known that feeling grateful leads to myriad mental and physical benefits. But is going right out to the shopping mall likely to promote the experience of gratitude? It has become clear that a different type of consumption—one centered on experiences—is a better bet. And getting consumers to reallocate how they spend their money might even lead them to treat others better.