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Do experiences make people happier than material possessions? In two surveys, respondents from various demographic groups indicated that experiential purchases-those made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience--made them happier than material purchases. In a follow-up laboratory experiment, participants experienced more positive feelings after pondering an experiential purchase than after pondering a material purchase. In another experiment, participants were more likely to anticipate that experiences would make them happier than material possessions after adopting a temporally distant, versus a temporally proximate, perspective. The discussion focuses on evidence that experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one's identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.
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To Do or to Have? That Is the Question
Leaf Van Boven
University of Colorado at Boulder
Thomas Gilovich
Cornell University
Do experiences make people happier than material possessions? In two surveys, respondents from
various demographic groups indicated that experiential purchases—those made with the primary inten-
tion of acquiring a life experience—made them happier than material purchases. In a follow-up
laboratory experiment, participants experienced more positive feelings after pondering an experiential
purchase than after pondering a material purchase. In another experiment, participants were more likely
to anticipate that experiences would make them happier than material possessions after adopting a
temporally distant, versus a temporally proximate, perspective. The discussion focuses on evidence that
experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more
meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.
We live in a world of unprecedented abundance. Although few
of us can live up to the advertising slogan that invites us to “have
it all,” a growing swath of the population in developed countries
has more discretionary income than ever before. We devote a
considerable portion of our resources to the pursuit of “the good
life”—one of contentment, pleasure, and happiness. For many of
us, deciding how to invest our resources to maximize happiness is
a challenge: We wonder whether we are as happy as we might be,
given the resources at our disposal. We wonder whether more
money, more leisure, or more stuff would make us happier. These
queries may not apply to everyone, of course; individuals with
severely limited resources may (rightfully) worry more about
satisfying basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing (Maslow,
1943). But for the fortunate majority in developed countries who
enjoy a substantial measure of discretionary income, one can ask
whether there is a simple, empirically grounded strategy to guide
the allocation of resources in the pursuit of happiness.
The thesis examined in this article is that happiness is advanced
more by allocating discretionary income toward the acquisition of
life experiences than toward the acquisition of material posses-
sions. “The good life,” in other words, may be better lived by
doing things than by having things.
Materialism
Our research follows a humanistic tradition critical of material
pursuits. Aristotle observed that “men fancy that external goods
are the cause of happiness” but claimed that “leisure of itself gives
pleasure and happiness and enjoyment in life” (trans. 1996, pp. 185
and 197). Some time later, the bible has Jesus admonishing, “one’s
life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15,
New King James Version). More recently, Fromm (1976) criti-
cized industrialized societies for neglecting “being” in favor of
“having”—an emphasis he believed inhibits self-actualization. Sci-
tovsky (1976) similarly suggested that people in industrialized
societies, particularly the United States, have created a “joyless
economy” by pursuing “comforts” (which eliminate pains but
produce little or no enjoyment) to the detriment of short-lived
“pleasures.” Summarizing evidence across the social sciences,
Frank (1999) observed that across-the-board “increases in our
stocks of material goods produce virtually no measurable gains in
our psychological or physical well-being. Bigger houses and faster
cars, it seems, don’t make us any happier” (p. 6).
Consistent with these ideas, prior research demonstrates that
materialistic people tend to report lower subjective well-being than
nonmaterialistic people. People who strongly agree with such
statements as “Some of the most important achievements in life
include acquiring material possessions” and “Buying things gives
me a lot of pleasure” report lower levels of satisfaction with life
than people who disagree with such statements (Belk, 1985; Rich-
ins & Dawson, 1992). More generally, people who endorse such
extrinsic aspirations as “You will buy things just because you want
them” report lower levels of well-being (Kasser & Ryan, 1993,
1996). According to self-determination theory, focusing on exter-
nal rewards fails to satisfy needs for autonomy, competence, and
relatedness, thereby hindering self-actualization and personal in-
tegration (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Kasser, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Our investigation expands these findings by examining whether
investing in experiences generally makes people happier than
investing in possessions.
Experiential Versus Material Investments
A central challenge of our research is to delineate a distinction
between experiences and possessions that is both theoretically
meaningful and intuitively resonant in everyday life. An intuitive,
Leaf Van Boven, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at
Boulder; Thomas Gilovich, Department of Psychology, Cornell University.
This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant
9809262 and by a grant from the Positive Psychology Young Scholars
program. We thank Robert Frank and George Loewenstein for comments
on an earlier version of this article. We thank Alex Heath, Mina Myong,
Erika Norman, and Adam Rokshar for their help collecting data. We give
special thanks to Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and Harris Interac-
tive for conducting the National Survey.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leaf Van
Boven, University of Colorado at Boulder, Department of Psychology,
UCB 345, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0345. E-mail: vanboven@colorado
.edu or tdg1@cornell.edu
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
2003, Vol. 85, No. 6, 1193–1202 0022-3514/03/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1193
1193
easily recognized distinction would advance the practical aim of
helping individuals decide how to allocate their discretionary
resources. The difficulty, of course, is that the distinction is not
always clear-cut. Nearly everyone would deem a hike in the
Himalayas to be an experience and a new Patek-Phillipe watch to
be a possession. But what about a flat-screen TV or an automobile?
Are they possessions or vehicles for experiences?
Although such ambiguities create some interpretive difficulties,
they do not render the distinction meaningless. At dusk, it can be
difficult to discern whether it is really day or night, but that does
not undermine the utility of the general distinction between night
and day. One way to meet this interpretive challenge is to rely on
peoples intentions when investing in their happiness. Thus, expe-
riential purchases are those made with the primary intention of
acquiring a life experience: an event or series of events that one
lives through. Material purchases are those made with the primary
intention of acquiring a material good: a tangible object that is kept
in ones possession.
In drawing this intention-based distinction, we were inspired by
two related dichotomies. First, consumer behavior researchers
have recently distinguished between hedonic goods, those acquired
with the primary intention of fostering enjoyment, and utilitarian
goods, those acquired with the primary intention of achieving
practical aims (Dhar & Wertenbroch, 2000; Kivetz & Strahilovitz,
2000). A second distinction is the one mentioned earlier between
extrinsic goals, which depend on the contingent reactions of
others,and intrinsic goals, which express desires congruent with
actualizing and growth tendencies natural to humans (Kasser &
Ryan, 1996, p. 280). Like ours, these distinctions are imprecise. Is
installing a professional gas stove in ones kitchen hedonic or
utilitarian? Does exercising reflect an intrinsic goal to be healthy,
or an extrinsic goal to be physically attractive to others? Despite
these ambiguities, the distinctions between hedonic and utilitarian
purchases and between intrinsic and extrinsic goals have proved
useful to researchers. And, as we shall demonstrate, the categorical
distinction between experiential and material purchases, imprecise
and imperfect though it may be, is readily recognized and widely
shared.
The Present Studies
We examined whether investing discretionary income in life
experiences makes people happier than investing in material pos-
sessions. In an initial survey, we asked people to think of experi-
ences and material possessions they purchased during the past
month (Study 1), and to indicate how happy those investments
made them. In a larger national survey, we investigated whether
people from different demographic groups would report that life
experiences made them happier (Study 2). Bringing our investiga-
tion into the lab, we examined the impact of thinking about
experiential versus material purchases on peoples current moods
(Study 3). Finally, we examined whether experiences might make
people happier than possessions partly because experiences are
evaluated more favorably over time. Specifically, we examined
whether people who adopted a temporally distant perspective
expressed a stronger preference for experiences than people who
adopted a temporally proximate perspective (Study 4).
Study 1: Recent Purchases
How can we examine whether experiences make people happier
than material possessions? The simplest approach is to ask them.
Accordingly, we asked respondents to describe either the most
recent experiential purchase or the most recent material purchase
they had made for more than $100, and to rate how happy the
purchase made them. We anticipated that respondents would report
that experiential purchases made them happier than material
purchases.
We also asked respondents to evaluate the wisdom of their
purchase from an economic standpoint. If people believe that their
experiences make them happier than their material possessions, do
they also deem their experiences to be better financial investments
than their possessions? Material possessions, after all, are physi-
cally retained over time whereas experiences are not. The contin-
ued enjoyment of experiences is only indirecta pleasant mem-
ory, a favorable self-perception, or an enjoyable story to tell.
People might therefore judge material possessions to be better
financial investments, even if they do not make them happier. We
examined this possibility by asking respondents to rate the extent
to which the money spent on their purchase was money well-
spentand whether they thought the money could have been better
spent on something else.
We also investigated whether people recognize and make con-
sistent distinctions between experiential and material purchases by
asking some respondents (outsiders) to evaluate other peoples
purchases. Our definition of experiential and material purchases
rests on peoples ideographic intentions regarding their invest-
ment. The same purchase (a car) can have different meanings for
some people (I need better handling on mountain turns) than for
others (I want to add to my collection). Because people have
little or no access to the intentions surrounding a strangers pur-
chase, they must infer the intentions from the purchase itself. We
were therefore interested in whether outsiders would categorize
purchases the same as the respondents themselves.
Method
Main survey. Ninety-seven University of British Columbia (UBC)
undergraduates completed a survey in exchange for a chocolate bar. The
survey concerned a purchase you have made with the intention of ad-
vancing your happiness and enjoyment in life. Respondents randomly
assigned to the experiential purchase condition were asked to think of the
most recent experiential purchase they made for more than $100 and that
involved spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a life
experiencean event or series of events that you personally encounter or
live through. Respondents in the material purchase condition were asked
to think of their most recent material purchase of more than $100 that
involved spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a
material possessiona tangible object that you obtain and keep in your
possession.
Respondents then indicated how happy their purchase made them. They
were asked, When you think about this purchase, how happy does it make
you? which they answered on a scale ranging from 1 (not happy)to5
(moderately happy)to9(extremely happy). They were also asked, How
much does this purchase contribute to your happiness in life? which they
answered on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all)to5(moderately)to9(very
much). Respondents also answered two questions about the financial wis-
dom of their purchase: To what extent would you say this purchase is
money well-spent? which they answered on a scale ranging from 1 (not
well-spent)to5(moderately well-spent)to9(very well-spent); and, To
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VAN BOVEN AND GILOVICH
what extent do you think the money spent on this purchase would have
been better spent on something elsesome other type of purchase that
would have made you happier? which they answered on a scale ranging
from 1 (not at all)to5(moderately)to9(very much).
Outsiders. Several weeks after completion of the main survey, 42 UBC
undergraduates received a candy bar in exchange for reading short sum-
maries of between 15 and 20 randomly selected purchase descriptions from
the main survey, approximately half of which were experiential purchases.
The outsiders read the same definition of experiential and material pur-
chases given to the survey respondents, but were not told whether the
purchases were originally listed as experiential or material. Outsiders rated
the extent to which each purchase was experiential or material on a scale
ranging from 1 (purely material)to5(equally experiential and material)
to9(purely experiential). They also rated how happy each purchase would
make them on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all happy)to9(extremely
happy).
Results and Discussion
As anticipated, respondents asked to evaluate an experiential
purchase indicated that it made them happier than did those asked
to evaluate a material purchase (see Table 1).
1
Respondents also
indicated that experiential purchases were better financial invest-
ments than material purchases. Participants indicated that, com-
pared with material purchases, experiential purchases made them
happier, t(95) 2.91, p .005, contributed more to their happi-
ness in life, t(95) 2.44, p .017, and represented money better
spent, t(95) 2.26, p .026. Respondents were also less inclined
to say that the money spent on experiences could have been better
spent elsewhere than the money spent on material possessions,
t(95) 1.94, p .056.
Respondents purchase descriptions suggest that the distinction
between experiential and material purchases resonates with people
in everyday life (see Table 2). There is very little overlap between
the two types of purchase descriptions: The most frequently de-
scribed category of experiential purchases (fees and admissions)
was described by only 1 respondent as a material purchase; the
most frequently described category of material purchases (clothing
and jewelry) was described by only 1 respondent as an experiential
purchase.
Outsiders evaluating other peoples purchasesfor which out-
siders must guess the purchasers intentionsalso recognized this
distinction. The parenthetical numbers in Table 2 present outsid-
ersaverage ratings of purchase descriptions within each purchase
category. Outsiders rated the experiential purchases as more ex-
periential (M 7.34) than the material purchases (M 3.23),
t(41) 15.29, p .001. Furthermore, outsiders predicted that
purchases originally described as experiential would make them
happier (M 6.78) than purchases originally described as material
(M 4.25), t(41) 9.41, p .001.
These findings bolster the claim that the distinction between
experiential and material purchases is widely shared and readily
recognized in everyday life. That this distinction was easily made
by outsiderspeople who did not themselves acquire the pur-
chasessuggests that the experiential and material properties are
somewhat inherent to the purchases themselves, not only to peo-
ples idiographic intentions regarding the purchase. The distinction
between experiential and material purchases is thus both concep-
tually meaningful and intuitively compelling to people in everyday
life.
The between-respondents design of this study casts doubt on the
possibility that our results are an artifact of social desirability
concerns. To be sure, people may often be more comfortable
saying that they are made happier by their experiences than by
their material possessions. Indeed, as we describe later, one reason
why experiences tend to make people happier is the negative
stereotype associated with being materialistica stereotype that
could make people reluctant to trumpet the hedonic value of their
possessions. However, because respondents in this survey were
never asked to compare experiential and material possessions
directly, social desirability concerns were less likely to have in-
fluenced their responses. We present additional evidence against
the social desirability interpretation in Study 3.
Study 2: National Survey
How widespread is this tendency of experiences to provide
greater hedonic value than material possessions? Is it true for men
and women? Young and old? Black and White? Rich and poor?
The relatively small sample of respondents in Study 1 and the
reliance on university students do not allow a full examination of
these questions. We therefore explored in a national survey
whether people from various demographic groups would endorse
the hedonic superiority of experiential purchases over possessions.
Method
A nationwide cross-section of 1,279 Americans, aged 2169, was sur-
veyed between November and December 2000 by Harris Interactive on
behalf of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. The survey was con-
ducted over the telephone, with respondents solicited through random-digit
dialing. Respondents were those who identified themselves as the primary
financial decision makers in their households. Most of the approximately
180-item survey concerned respondents attitudes and behaviors with re-
spect to financial planning, such as How much money would you need to
feel secure about your financial future? Toward the end of the survey,
respondents were asked to think of an experiential and a material purchase
they had made during their lifetime with the aim of increasing your
1
There was no reliable difference in the cost of material and experiential
purchases (medians $150 and $190, respectively). There was a margin-
ally reliable tendency for material purchases to be purchased more recently
(M 2.54 months ago) than experiential purchases (M 4.70 months
ago), t(95) 1.85, p .07. Statistically controlling for this difference did
not alter any of the results.
Table 1
Study 1: Recent Purchases. Respondents’ Evaluations of
Experiential and Material Purchases Made During the
Preceding Month, and “Outsiders’” Ratings of How Happy
Other People’s Purchases Would Make Them
Evaluation
Type of purchase
Experiential Material
Main survey
How happy does thinking about it make you? 7.51 6.62
Contributed to your overall happiness in life? 6.40 5.42
Money well spent? 7.30 6.42
Better spent on something else? 3.77 4.52
Outsiders evaluation
Anticipated happiness 6.78 4.25
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EXPERIENCES VERSUS POSSESSIONS
happiness. Respondents were then asked, When you think about these
two purchases, which makes you happier? They answered by selecting
my experiential purchase,”“my material purchase,”“not sure, or de-
cline to answer.
Results and Discussion
Respondents who declined to answer whether their experiential
or material purchase made them happier (1%) were excluded from
all analyses (resulting N 1,263).
As expected, respondents were substantially more likely to
report that their experiential purchases made them happier than
their material purchases (57%, 95% confidence interval 54%
60%) than they were to report that their material purchases made
them happier than their experiential purchases (34%, 95% confi-
dence interval 31%37%).
Our primary interest, however, was the relationship between
respondents demographic profiles and their endorsement of ex-
periential over material purchases. As illustrated in Table 3, across
a variety of demographic categories, respondents were more likely
to report that their experiential purchases made them happier than
they were to report the reverse. That is not to say that there were
no demographic differences: Women, younger individuals, and
those living in urban or suburban communities were a bit more
likely to indicate that experiences made them happier than were
men, elderly people, and those living in rural communities. How-
ever, even in those categories less likely to favor experiences over
possessions, a greater proportion of respondents indicated that
their experiences made them happier than the reverse. Reporting
that experiences make one happier than possessions is thus the rule
not the exception.
A further demographic difference is noteworthy. Respondents
level of income (see Figure 1) was positively associated with their
endorsement of experiential over material possessionsso much
so that respondents with the lowest levels of income were equally
likely to indicate that material or experiential purchases made them
happier. A similar pattern emerged for education, which is highly
correlated with income (cf. Witter, Okun, Stock, & Haring, 1984).
In fact, people with the lowest levels of education (some high
school or less) were slightly more likely to indicate that material
possessions made them happier, whereas respondents with at least
a high school degree were more likely to indicate that experiences
made them happier. These patterns are perhaps not surprising.
Individuals with little or no discretionary income (typically those
with the least education) must allocate most of their resources
toward the satisfaction of basic needs, and may have fewer oppor-
tunities to worry about the relative benefits of experiences and
possessions in the pursuit of happiness.
Although one can speculate about potential causes underlying
the demographic differences in endorsement of experiential over
material purchases, such speculation should be viewed with cau-
tion. Because respondents did not provide us with purchase de-
scriptions in this survey, we cannot discern whether the differential
endorsement of experiences over material possessions stems from
evaluations of different types of purchases or from different eval-
uations of similar purchases. It is quite likely that younger, wealth-
ier, more educated individuals purchase different types of experi-
ences than older, less educated, and less wealthy individuals. It is
also possible that these different groups purchase similar kinds of
experiences and possessions, but evaluate them differently. We
suspect that wealthier, more educated people may have been
acculturated and educated in a system that emphasizes self-
actualization, which might help them reap greater psychological
benefits from experiences. Establishing causal clarity and unpack-
ing these demographic differences is an important issue for further
research.
Study 3: Mood Experiment
Respondents in the previous surveys reported that their experi-
ential purchases made them happier than their material purchases.
Our interpretation of these results assumes, as do many subjective
well-being researchers, that people can accurately report their own
happiness (Larsen, Diener, & Emmons, 1985; Lyubomirsky &
Lepper, 1999). This assumption is substantiated by findings indi-
cating that self-reported measures of happiness are internally con-
sistent, stable, and converge with informant and spouse reports
(Costa & McCrae, 1980; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999). But
critics of this assumption note that transient, contextual factors can
influence measures of subjective well-being (e.g., Schwarz &
Strack, 1999). And even if people can report their own subjective
well-being, they may not be able to accurately report the causes of
their well-being. Partly because of these concerns, some research-
Table 2
Study 1: Recent Purchases. Percentage of Experiential and Material Purchases in Each of 10
Categories
Purchase category
Type of purchase
Experiential Material
Beauty spas and products 4% (2.57) 2% (4.10)
Books and compact discs 2% (4.22)
Clothing and jewelry 2% (3.57) 62% (2.86)
Dining 17% (7.60)
Fees and admissions (to concerts, ski slopes, etc.) 43% (7.49) 2% (6.00)
Televisions, stereo, and computer equipment 26% (3.47)
Travel 32% (7.51)
Other 2% (4.77) 6% (4.92)
Note. A dash indicates there was no purchase description in that category. Numbers in parentheses are
outsiders’” ratings of the extent to which the purchase was experiential versus material on a scale ranging from
1(purely material)to5(equally material and experiential)to9(purely experiential).
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VAN BOVEN AND GILOVICH
ers advocate the abandonment of global assessments of well-being
in favor of moment-to-moment reports of feelings (e.g., Kahne-
man, 1999; Stone, Shiffman, & DeVries, 1999).
We designed an experiment with this critique in mind. We asked
participants to describe either an experiential or material purchase.
One week later, we asked them to read their description and ponder
their purchase. At both times, we measured participants current
feelings. If, as we hypothesize, thinking about experiential pur-
chases makes people happier than thinking about material pur-
chases, pondering an experience should have a more positive effect
on participantscurrent feelings than pondering a material posses-
sion. This design thus avoids any limitations inherent in retrospec-
tive, more global evaluations of happiness. It also permits a closer
examination of the possibility that our earlier results are an artifact
of social desirability concerns. A report of ones mood is simply
thata report of how one feels at the moment for whatever reason.
It is not a report of how one feels because of one type of purchase
or another, and hence there is no need for participants to disguise
their true responses because one type of purchase may be more
socially desirable than another.
Method
Seventy Cornell University undergraduates were offered course credit to
participate in two sessions, approximately 1 week apart.
2
Upon arrival at
the first session, participants completed a Background Questionnaire that
the experimenter described as a tool that would assess factors that may or
may not affect behavior in experiments. The questionnaire contained two
measures of participantscurrent mood. Participants first rated their current
mood on two bipolar scales, one ranging from 4(bad)to4(good), and
another ranging from 4(sad)to4(happy; cf. Forgas, 1999). Partici-
pants then completed a shortened version of the Affectometer 2 scale,
which assesses ones current experience of positive and negative feelings
(Kamman & Flett, 1983). Specifically, participants rated how much each of
14 adjectives described how they felt right now on 7-point scales ranging
from 1 (not at all)to7(a great deal). The adjectives were as follows:
clear-headed, depressed, discontented, enthusiastic, free-and-easy, good-
2
Although participants were required to attend both sessions to receive
credit, an additional 15 participants (6 in the experiential purchase condi-
tion and 9 in the material purchase condition) did not return for the second
session. Their data are not included in the analyses.
Table 3
Study 2: National Survey
Demographic category
Type of purchase
Experiential Material
Age
2134 (350) 59% 36%
3554 (645) 58% 31%
5569 (268) 49% 38%
Employment
Employed full or part-time (941) 58% 33%
Retired or unemployed (218) 47% 39%
Students and homemakers (102) 67% 25%
Ethnicity
White (1,000) 58% 33%
Black/African American (133) 53% 36%
Asian/Pacific Islander (17) 47% 29%
Other/decline to answer (113) 46% 42%
Gender
Male (591) 51% 38%
Female (672) 62% 30%
Marital status
Single, separated, or divorced (336) 60% 32%
Married or living together (895) 56% 34%
Political affiliation
Democrat (418) 55% 35%
Republican (454) 63% 29%
Independent (267) 57% 33%
Region
East (288) 59% 33%
South (411) 55% 35%
Midwest (295) 57% 32%
West (267) 56% 35%
Residential environment
Urban (363) 56% 35%
Suburban (654) 59% 31%
Rural (246) 49% 40%
Note. Percentage of respondents in various demographic categories who indicated that their experiential
purchase made them happier than their material purchase, and the percentage indicating the reverse. The
remaining percentage in each demographic category was unsure whether experiential or material purchases made
them happier. Numbers in parentheses represent the number of respondents in each demographic category (N
1,263). Respondents within each demographic category who declined to answer are not included in the table.
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EXPERIENCES VERSUS POSSESSIONS
natured, helpless, hopeless, impatient, lonely, loving, optimistic, satisfied,
and withdrawn.
Participants were next asked to write a description of a purchase they
were happy with and that had been made either by them or for them during
their lifetime. Participants were randomly assigned either to the experien-
tial purchase condition or to the material purchase condition. Participants
were asked to describe the purchase itself, not the surrounding circum-
stances. They were asked not to describe a gift they had purchased for
someone else, although they were allowed to describe gifts received.
When participants arrived for the second session, approximately 1 week
later, they were escorted to private rooms and given 10 min to read and
contemplate their description from the first session. Afterward, they were
asked, When thinking about your purchase, how happy does it make
you? which they answered on a scale ranging from 1 (not happy)to9
(extremely happy). The experimenter then said that the study was complete.
As an apparent afterthought, the experimenter mentioned that, Wed
better have you complete a Background Questionnaire. Participants were
then given the same questionnaire they had completed during the first
session. After completing the questionnaire, participants were thanked and
debriefed.
Results
Consistent with the preceding surveys, participants in the expe-
riential purchase condition reported that thinking about their pur-
chase made them happier (M 7.51) than did participants in the
material purchase condition (M 6.86), t(68) 2.26, p .027.
Our primary analysis, however, concerned the effects of contem-
plating experiential versus material purchases on participants
mood. We averaged participants ratings of their current mood on
the goodbad and happysad scales from each session into a single
measure (rs .92 and .82, for Sessions 1 and 2, respectively).
After appropriate reverse scoring, with higher numbers reflecting
more positive (and less negative) feelings, participants 14 re-
sponses to the Affectometer 2 were also averaged to create a single
measure for each session (Cronbachs
.90 for each session).
These two measures were then standardized and averaged into an
overall index for each session. Within Sessions 1 and 2, the two
measures were significantly correlated (rs .73 and .76, respec-
tively). The correlation across sessions of the overall index was
.52.
To examine whether contemplating an experiential purchase
placed participants in a relatively better mood than contemplating
a material purchase, we conducted an analysis of covariance com-
paring Session 2 standardized mood scores of participants in the
experiential and material purchase conditions, controlling for their
standardized mood scores during Session 1. As anticipated, par-
ticipants in the experiential purchase condition were in a relatively
better mood (adjusted M 0.20) than were participants in the
material purchase condition (adjusted M 0.20), F(1, 67)
4.59, p .036.
3
Furthermore, the correlation between participants
reports of how happy thinking about their purchase made them and
their mood during Session 2, controlling for their mood during
Session 1, was .34 (p .04).
Discussion
These results indicate that the experience of remembering ex-
periential purchases makes people happier than the experience of
remembering material purchases, corroborating peoples self-
reports of how happy thinking about their purchases make them.
3
There was no significant difference in mood during Session 1 (Ms
.05 and .05, for experiential and material purchases, respectively; t 1).
Analyzing Session 2 moods without including the Session 1 scores as a
covariate yields a marginally significant difference in the expected direc-
tion, F(1, 68) 2.50, p .12.
Figure 1. Percentage of respondents with different levels of income who indicated that their experiential or
material purchase made them happier. Numbers in parentheses are the number of respondents in each income
category; the 127 respondents who either were not sure of their income category or declined to answer are not
included in the graph. The remaining percentage of respondents in each category were not sure whether their
experiential or material purchase made them happier.
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VAN BOVEN AND GILOVICH
Some researchers (e.g., Kahneman, 1999) recommend that mea-
sures of happiness incorporate not only the valence and intensity of
feelings, but also the frequency with which individuals experience
those feelings. The results of this experiment indicate that thinking
about experiential purchases gives people more pleasure than
thinking about material purchases; but do people also think about
their experiential purchases more often? As an initial examination
of this possibility, we administered a short, anonymous survey to
40 Cornell University students, asking them to think of one expe-
riential purchase and one material purchase they had made and
were happy with. When asked which purchase they thought about
more often, a clear majority (83%, 95% confidence interval
71%94%) indicated that they mentally revisited their experi-
ential purchase more often than their material purchase. This
suggests that thinking about experiences not only makes people
happier than thinking about material possessions, they also think
about their experiences more often.
Study 4: Temporal Perspectives
Experiences may make people happier than material possessions
in part because experiences are more open to increasingly favor-
able interpretations over time. One reason (of several) for this
difference is that experiences may have more favorable abstract,
higher level features than material possessions. Visiting a museum,
for example, may have more favorable higher level meanings
(learning,”“becoming cultured) than a new shirt, and these
deeper meanings may figure more prominently in peoples con-
strual of the museum visit over time. Indeed, people generally
construe objects in terms of their central, higher level features
when adopting a temporally distal perspective, but construe them
in terms of peripheral, low-level features when adopting a tempo-
rally proximal perspective (Trope & Liberman, 2003). Academic
conferences, for instance, are often construed more favorably in
the psychologically distant past or future than in the psychologi-
cally near past or future because the abstract, high-level features
(visiting interesting places and advancing science) are more favor-
able than the peripheral, low-level features (packing suitcases and
preparing talks; Liberman & Trope, 1998). Analogously, if expe-
riences have more favorable abstract, high-level features than
material possessions, but equally or less appealing peripheral,
low-level features, then experiences should be relatively more
desirable from a temporally distant perspective than from a tem-
porally proximate perspective. Study 4 tested this prediction.
Method
Building on a procedure used by Liberman and Trope (1998), we asked
84 Cornell University undergraduates, who participated in exchange for
course credit, to imagine facing four choices, each between an experience
and a material possession. The experiences and possessions were culled
from purchase descriptions in other surveys. The purchases were selected
to be gender neutral and, for each choice, were matched as well as possible
for cost. The four choices were between a new watch or going to a
Broadway show, a pair of leather boots or dinner and a comedy show, a
compact disk of ones choice or going to a pool hall, and a new jacket or
spending an evening in a cafe´ with a friend. Some participants were
randomly assigned to imagine they had confronted the choices 1 year ago
(distant past); others imagined they would confront the choices 1 year in
the future (distant future); and a third group imagined they would confront
the choices the following day (near future). For each pair, participants
indicated which they would choose (would have chosen), and which would
make (have made) them happier.
Results and Discussion
Of the four choices, we calculated the percentage of experiences
that each participant indicated he or she would actually choose and
would make the participant happier. As expected, participants
were more likely to indicate that they would choose and be made
happier by experiences when adopting a temporally distal perspec-
tiveeither past or futurethan when adopting a temporally
proximate perspective (see Table 4). A planned contrast revealed
that participants in the two temporally distant conditions were
significantly more likely to choose the experiences than partici-
pants in the near future condition, t(82) 1.99, p .05. (The two
distant conditions did not differ from each other, t[82] 1.21, ns.)
Another planned contrast revealed that participants in the two
distant conditions were more likely to indicate that the experiences
would make them happier than participants in the immediate future
condition, t(82) 2.54, p .013. (Again, the two distant condi-
tions did not differ from each other, t 1.) These results suggest
that experiences have particular appeal when construed from the
higher level of abstraction that comes with temporal distance,
implying that experiences are more open to favorable interpreta-
tions over time.
General Discussion
Evidence from a variety of sources suggests that people derive
more enjoyment from discretionary experiential purchases than
from discretionary material purchases. In Study 1, a sample of
university students indicated that a gratifying experiential purchase
from the recent past made them happier and was more valuable to
them than a gratifying material purchase. Study 2 established the
same pattern of results, albeit to different degrees, in a nationwide
sample of respondents with widely divergent demographic pro-
files: young and old, Black and White, even Democrats and
Republicans. Our contention that people enjoy a greater hedonic
return from experiences than from possessions was reinforced by
the results of Study 3, in which reminding participants of an earlier
experiential purchase put them in a better mood than reminding
them of an earlier material purchase.
A couple elements of these different studies rule out the possi-
bility that people are not really made happier by their experiences
than their possessions, they just say that they are because it is more
socially acceptable to wax enthusiastic about ones experiences
than about ones possessions. In Study 1, experiences were rated
more favorably than possessions in a between-respondents design
in which each type of purchase was evaluated on its own terms, not
in relation to the other. In Study 3, participants did not render an
assessment of either an experiential or material purchase; they
merely contemplated one type or the other and filled out mood
scales, which revealed that contemplating an experience made
them happier than contemplating a material possession.
These findings were foreshadowed by earlier research demon-
strating that individuals who value the acquisition of material
possessions and who endorse extrinsic material goals are less
satisfied with life than those who value material possessions less
(Belk, 1985; Richins & Dawson, 1992) and who do not endorse
extrinsic goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). The methods used in this
1199
EXPERIENCES VERSUS POSSESSIONS
earlier work make it impossible to know whether the pursuit of
materialistic goals makes people less happy or whether people who
are less happy tend to pursue materialistic goals. Such is not the
case with the present research: Here the methods strongly suggest
that experiential purchases yield greater happiness than material
purchases.
Three Causes
Why do experiential purchases make people happier than ma-
terial purchases? There are at least three possibilities, each of
which may be a phenomenon worthy of further investigation in its
own right.
Experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation. Expe-
riences are more open than material possessions to increasingly
favorable interpretations and evaluations with the passage of time.
In Study 4, participants were more likely to prefer experiences
over possessions when thinking about having one or the other in
either the distant past or the distant future as opposed to the near
future. Because people who adopt temporally distant perspectives
construe objects in terms of higher level features (Trope & Liber-
man, 2003), this pattern suggests that the higher level features of
experiences are more favorable than the higher level features of
material possessions.
Another reason why experiences may be viewed more favorably
over time is that people are less constrained in their retrospective
evaluations of experiences. One of the core findings of subjective
well-being research is that people adapt to material advances,
requiring continued increases to achieve the same level of satis-
faction (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978; Frederick &
Loewenstein, 1999). Previous experiences, in contrast, exist only
as mental representations. As one forgets incidental annoyances
and distractions that detract from online enjoyment, these mental
representations can be sharpened, leveled, embellished, and recon-
figured to create a much rosier retrospective view than the event
enjoyed originally (Mitchell, Thompson, Peterson, & Cronk,
1997). A hiker may view a grueling trip through Alaskan wilder-
ness more favorably with the passage of time (and the healing of
blisters) than while bushwhacking, in the here-and-now, through
patches of devils club. As one of our survey respondents realized,
material possessions, they sort of become part of the background;
experiences just get better with time.
Experiences are more central to ones identity. A persons life
is quite literally the sum of his or her experiences. The accumu-
lation of rich experiences thus creates a richer life. The same
cannot be said of material possessions. As important and gratifying
as they sometimes are, they usually remain out there, separate
from the individual who attained them. Experiences, then, can
provide greater hedonic value because they contribute so much
more to the construction of the self than material possessions.
Even when both experiences and possessions contribute to a
persons identity, they tend to do so in different ways and to
different effect. Peoples acquisitions can say a great deal about
who they are (Belk, 1988), and people often display purchases as
a signal to others (and to themselves) of desired identities (Richins,
1994). Because there is a negative stereotype of materialistic
people (Fournier & Richins, 1991), the acquisition and display of
material possessions may lead people to apply this negative ste-
reotype to themselves. And because there is a positive stereotype
associated with experiential people (Van Boven & Gilovich,
2003), the acquisition of experiences may lead people to view
themselves in a favorable light. Furthermore, experiences may
contribute more favorably to ones identity because they satisfy
intrinsic goals relating to personal growth (Kasser & Ryan, 1996)
more than material possessions do and are therefore more self-
actualizing (Maslow, 1943).
As an initial examination of whether experiences are more
closely associated with peoples identity, we asked 76 adults (42%
male; M age 36.25 years) at shopping malls in upstate New
York and in New Jersey, and professors and staff at Cornell
University, to think of one experiential purchase and one material
purchase they had been happy with. We asked respondents
whether their experiential or material purchases had played a
greater role in defining who you are in life. Most (89%, 95%
confidence interval 82%96%) indicated that their experiential
purchases were more self-defining than their material purchases.
Experiences have greater social value. A final reason that
experiences make people happier than possessions is that they are
more pleasurable to talk about and they more effectively foster
successful social relationships, which are closely associated with
happiness (e.g., Diener & Seligman, 2002). For one thing, expe-
riences may be inherently more social than material possessions
(consider dining, dancing, and dating vs. shirts, sweaters, and
silverware). Furthermore, because experiences are more likely to
have a typical narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and
end, both listeners and storytellers may enjoy conversing about
experiences more than about possessions. And because being
materialistic is viewed negatively whereas being experiential
is viewed positively, telling stories about experiences one has
acquired may portray the storyteller in a more favorable light than
telling stories about acquired possessions.
In one examination of these possibilities, university students had
a conversation with another student regarding either experiential or
material purchases they had made and were happy with. Those
who had been asked to discuss experiential purchases were more
likely than those who discussed material purchases to say that they
liked each other more, that they enjoyed talking to each other
more, and were more interested in pursuing a friendship with the
other discussant (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003).
Limitations
Although the present research tests ideas advanced by philoso-
phers and social theorists for some time, it is also preliminary. Our
theorizing and research doubtless overlooks important complexi-
ties that future research will discover about the relationship be-
Table 4
Study 4: Temporal Perspectives
Temporal perspective
Evaluation
Choice Happiness
Distant past 64% 72%
Near future 50% 58%
Distant future 57% 68%
Note. Average percentage of respondentschoices favoring an experience
over a matched possession and average percentage of participants re-
sponses indicating that the experience would make them happier than the
possession, from three temporal perspectives.
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VAN BOVEN AND GILOVICH
tween the allocation of discretionary resources and well-being. In
any attempt to apply our findings to daily life, then, at least five
boundaries and limitations should be kept in mind.
First, as mentioned earlier, the distinction between experiential
and material purchases is not always clear-cut. Many material
purchases, such as patios, pianos, and Porsches, enable gratifying
experiences. And even some that do not, such as washing ma-
chines, dishwashers, and sprinkling systems, nonetheless free up
time for experiences that would otherwise be spent on drudgery. It
should be noted, however, that material purchases often merely
replace fully functioning existing items with a newer version of the
samebuying yet another new pair of slacks, tearing up the
bathroom linoleum to put in tile, or trading in the 3-year-old family
sedan for this years model. It is unclear what experiential gain
purchases such as these provide. Still, the existence of such am-
biguous cases does raise some important questions for future
research. Is it the case, for example, that material possessions that
afford new life experiences tend to make people happier than those
that do not? Or, do material possessions that are instrumental in the
achievement of experiences make people happier than those ter-
minalpossessions, such as jewelry and most clothing, that tend to
be ends in themselves (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton,
1981; Fournier & Richins, 1991)?
Second, there may be important exceptions to the rule that
experiences make people happier than material possessions. Some
possessions, for example, might be imbued with sentimental value
(an heirloom or wedding ring) that provides many of the same
gratifications as most experiences. And some experiences (eating
out frequently or going to the movies regularly) might be prone to
the same adaptation processes that limit the hedonic value of most
possessions.
Third, our results do not indicate that material possessions do
not make people happy. Although many social critics have noted
the futility of trying to achieve happiness through the narrow
pursuit of material gain (Frank, 1999; Schor, 2000), the careful and
measured acquisition of material possessions can no doubt ad-
vance ones happiness. Our findings suggest, simply, that a person
would be made happier by investing in life experiences more than
material possessions.
Fourth, we wish to reiterate that our research concerns the
allocation of discretionary resources in the pursuit of happiness.
Our findings do not imply that people should forgo basic needs
such as adequate clothing, housing, or nourishment in pursuit of
life experiences. The present topic may thus be most relevant to
those with the resources to meet their basic needs, and the luxury
of pondering whether to spend the surplus on experiences or
possessions. Still, it is worth considering where, exactly, to draw
the line between necessities and luxuries. Are new automobiles,
name brand clothing, and home entertainment systems necessary?
Or should these possessions be forgone to allow for more experi-
ential acquisitions? The answers to these questions may shed light
on how best to pursue the good life and maximize well-being.
Finally, much of the evidence we have presented involves
peoples summary judgments of the happiness they have derived
from their experiences and possessions. What people recall about
their enjoyment of an object or an event, of course, may not map
on perfectly to their actual online enjoyment. Kahneman (1999)
has shown, for example, that recollections of earlier hedonic
experiences are dominated by a peak-end rulethat is, by what
the experience was like at its best (or worst) and what it was like
at the end. If experiences offer a higher peak experience, and
possessions provide more sustained gratification with a lesser
peak, then people may mistakenly recall that their experiences
gave them greater overall pleasure. This is a viable possibility that
should be examined in subsequent research. It should be noted,
however, that the pleasure we derive from our anticipations and
recollections of events are a substantial part of our online experi-
ence (Elster & Loewenstein, 1992). Our enjoyment of both expe-
riences and possessions extend in time: We enjoy their anticipa-
tion, and, as illustrated by Study 3, further consume their
recollection. If, as Study 4 suggests, experiences are more enjoy-
able than possessions with foresight and hindsight, that fact should
not be brushed aside as a distortion of our true experience: It is our
experience.
Conclusion
Psychological research can inform our understanding of every-
day life and suggest ways to improve it. We believe that the
present research does both. We have shown that, for a variety of
reasons, experiential purchases make people happier than material
purchases. These findings have implications both for individuals
resource allocations, and for the allocation of resources by com-
munities. Experiences cannot be acquired if they are not available:
One cannot ski if there are no slopes, hike if there are no trails, or
enjoy the arts if they are not funded. Our research suggests that
individuals will live happier lives if they invest in experiences
more than material possessions. By the same token, communities
will have happier citizens if they make available an abundance of
experiences to be acquired. Both individuals and communities
would thus do well to heed the slogan of the Center for the New
American Dream: More fun, less stuff!
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... While consumption per semeasured objectively in terms of money or time invested-does not always lead to subjective happiness (Durning, 1993;La Barbera & Gürhan, 1997), psychological research has established that the consumption of certain types of products does lead to greater happiness. For example, numerous studies have shown that an experiential purchase and consumption ("an event or series of events that you personally encounter or live through") compared to a material one ("a tangible object that you obtain and keep in your possession") leads to higher levels of general happiness (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003;p. 1194). ...
... Van Boven. and Gilovich (2003) offer some preliminary evidence demonstrating that (objectively) richer people get more happiness from experiential purchases than from material purchases. Following up on our theory, it could be that women, still more than men, focus on meaning in their pursuit of happiness because they are more likely to economize between different consumption domains neglecting "frivolous" pleasure. ...
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... In contrast to the luxury industry, the luxury hotel business is centred on selling experiences instead of physical things, thus it attempts to provide exceptional service to fulfil consumers' requirements (Giglio et al., 2019). Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) opined that experience (like hotels), which is more closely related to oneself (Yang & Mattila, 2017), makes individuals happier than owning physical goods (material possessions), and termed it 'experience recommendation'. Luxury services are characterised based on the exceptional one-of-a-kind experience, non-ownership, prestige, hedonic value, and social exclusivity . ...
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... In the third part respondents are asked to assess the level of importance of six materialist aspects in their life, using a 7 point Likert scale (1=not important; 4=important; 7=very important) (Richins, 2004). The fourth part explores respondents' happiness over a set of eight questions, using a 7point Likert scale (1=not happy, 4=happy, 7= very happy) (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). Finally, the fifth part contains a list of 17 aesthetic attributes related to a touristic destination that respondents have to state using a 7-point Likert scale (Kirillova, 2015). ...
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