To Enjoy an Experience More, Wait for It Longer

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All things being equal, a bunch of research has shown, the purchase of experiences appears to bring more happiness than the purchase of things. But there’s still a lot researchers don’t know, and one important question is whether we also derive more pleasure from anticipating experiences than material objects. A new paper in Psychological Science suggests that yes, we do, and offers a useful hint about how to “hack” your purchases of experiences to maximize your enjoyment of them.

For the paper, wonderfully titled “Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases,” a team led by Cornell social psychology doctoral student Amit Kumar ran four studies. Three of them involved, more or less, asking people to evaluate what it would or did feel like to wait for an experience versus a material purchase. The fourth looked at news accounts of people waiting in line for both, partly to determine which sorts of lines were likely to give rise to unruly behavior.

The results? “The anticipatory period tends to be more pleasant, more exciting, and less tinged with impatience for experiential purchases we're looking forward to relative to future material purchases we are planning on making,” said lead author Amit Kumar, a doctoral student in social psychology at Cornell, in an email to Science of Us.

That’s not to say it can’t be fun to anticipate buying a new shirt or car — people do tend to derive enjoyment from this sort of anticipation. But waiting for experiences is more enjoyable, and the researchers think there are at least a couple of different possible reasons why.

One is that old “Keeping up with the Joneses” effect. Material purchases are way more susceptible to anxiety-provoking comparisons than experiential ones, and this may extent to the period before the purchase or acquisition of stuff. The other is that when we’re anticipating buying a thing, to a certain extent we know what we’re getting, and that limits the nature of our thoughts about it. “These more abstract thoughts about experiences can make them seem more significant, and hence more gratifying,” the researchers write. There’s more mental space in which to roam when you’re anticipating a vacation as compared to a coat, in other words.

This paper, Kumar said, suggests that we can take certain practical steps to maximize our enjoyment of experiences. “It might make sense for consumers to delay their consumption of some experiential purchases to take advantage of the relatively more exciting anticipatory period that comes with experiential consumption,” he said. “That is, it might be a good idea to make that restaurant reservation well in advance, to buy the tickets to the show beforehand, to start planning that vacation ahead of time. This increases the amount of time one can spend savoring his or her future consumption. You get extra time to imagine all the different foods you might eat, the songs the band might include in the set list, the feeling of the sand between your toes, and so on.”

Hey, if you can hack your diet and workspace and exercise regimen, why not hack your anticipation as well?