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Experiences rather than material goods more fulfilling, study suggests

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The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, July 8, 2019  /  01:07 am
Experiences rather than material goods more fulfilling, study suggests

People were more likely to share gratitude over their travel experiences or places they went to or foods they enjoyed, compared with material purchases they made such as clothes or gadgets. (Shutterstock/File)

Showing gratitude, besides being one of the most basic virtues, can actually have mental health benefits such as boosting your mood, helping you empathize and keeping stress and fear at bay.

But often it can be hard to put into practice, as we are often only passively grateful or rarely find time to appreciate the privileges we do have. Now a new study suggests that expressing and feeling more gratitude may rely on spending more money on experiences, and less on material objects.

When you purchase something like a new couch, said Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University in the United States and co-author of a new study on gratitude, you may say that it is a cool couch and that is it. But when you go on a holiday, you may consider it a memorable experience. 

"People say positive things about the stuff they bought," he said in a statement as quoted by Travel+Leisure. "But they don't usually express gratitude for it—or they don't express it as often as they do for their experiences."

Read also: People who travel are more interesting, study suggests

Gilovich’s new study looked at 1,200 online customer reviews—half of them concerning goods and the other half concerning services, more specifically an equal division between things that are bought versus experiences that are paid for. They were not surprised to find that reviewers were more likely to bring up gratitude in posts about their experiences rather than the things they bought.

People were more likely to share gratitude over their travel experiences or places they went to or foods they enjoyed, compared to material purchases they made, such as clothes or gadgets, the researchers wrote in the journal Emotion.

First researcher Jesse Walker, a psychology graduate student at Cornell, said that spending on experiences enables us to express more gratitude because they do not trigger as many social comparisons as material possessions do. Basically, memorable experiences allow people to appreciate their own positive emotions and circumstances in those moments, rather than feelings of desire or inadequacy when buying products that can be compared with someone else’s.

The researchers also performed several experiments with college students and adults recruited from an online database. Some 297 participants were asked to think about a recent purchase over US$100, either experiential or material. When asked how grateful they were for that purchase on a scale of one to nine, those who thought of experiences reported higher scores (an average of 7.36) than the material-possessions group (average 6.91).

In another study, respondents also shared how they felt happier after purchasing experiences compared to material goods, and considered the former a wiser thing to do with their money.

Finally, the researchers performed two experiments to determine how purchase-related gratitude might affect how people behave toward others. In both, participants were asked to think for a few minutes about a meaningful purchase, either an experience or a product. A few minutes later, volunteers were given the task of dividing $10 between themselves and an anonymous recipient. Those who had been tasked with remembering an experience or event gave away about $1-$2 more, on average, than the product group.

Co-author Amit Kumar, a researcher at the University of Chicago, said that this link between gratitude and altruism “suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply not only to consumers of those experiences, but to others in their orbit.”

The applications of these findings can certainly apply to individuals, Gilovich says, but they may also have practical applications for communities and governments.

"If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude, happiness and generosity," he says. Funding organizations that provide these experiences—such as tourism, museums and performance spaces—could be a realistic start that would also be in the public interest.

So if you are looking to maximize time spent with family, rethink shopping for gifts during the holidays, you can keep the researchers’ advice in mind and save up for those unique experiences. (nic/kes)

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