Experiences make you happier than ‘stuff,’ even before you buy


Thinking before you buy can be the best part. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Money can only buy you happiness if you spend it right. Previous research has shown that people value "experiences" like vacations and fancy meals more than they value material goods like cars and clothes. In a new study published in Psychological Science, researchers report that consumers actually enjoy waiting for experiences more, too.

In the first part of the study, titled "Waiting for Merlot," 97 students were asked to imagine one type of purchase or another in their future and to rate their feelings as more like impatience or excitement. While they mostly reported positive feelings across the board, things like concert tickets and vacations were described as more exciting to think about than were laptops and clothes, which the subjects were impatient to acquire.

Another portion of the study questioned 2,266 adults on their iPhones at random times, asking them if they were thinking about a future purchase at that moment (about 20 percent of the time, they were). Thinking about experiential purchases made them happier than when they'd not been thinking about any purchases at all, but a material goods purchase didn't move them from their baseline mood.

This makes sense if you think about it: A material good is something we'll use until it's obsolete, but an experience is something we always know will be ephemeral. When we savor the anticipation of an experience, we're doing ourselves a service -- we're turning the wait into part of the experience.

On the other hand, waiting for the new iPhone feels like nothing but time wasted with an old one.

The researchers suggest that focusing more on experiences could be the key to happiness. Science like this can help you inform individual choices, but it could have broader applications, too.

“Our research is also important to society," Cornell University psychology researcher and study author Thomas Gilovich said in a statement, "because it suggests that overall well-being can be advanced by providing an infrastructure that affords experiences – such as parks, trails, beaches – as much as it does material consumption."

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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