How to Buy Happiness

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Never in human history has it been easier to purchase stuff: Trips. Gadgets. Food. If you live in a major city, you can find out a product exists and then have it delivered to your door hours later. We’re awash in a flood of hyperkinetic consumerism; a deafening buzz urges us everywhere to buy, buy, buy. Amid a torrent of one-click payments and rapidly accumulating credit-card points, it’s easy to lose sight of some simple questions: Does all this buying make us happy? And how can we maximize the extent to which it does?

These are relatively new questions for psychology researchers. The current, admittedly tentative understanding of which sorts of purchases make us happiest and why dates back only to 2003, when Leaf van Boven and Tom Gilovich introduced a key distinction (PDF) that drives much of the current research into this subject. On the one hand are experiential purchases, or “spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience — an event or series of events that you personally encounter or live through.” On the other are material purchases, or “spending money with the primary intention of acquiring a material possession — a tangible object that you obtain and keep in your possession.”

Gilovich and van Boven’s study, and a bevy of others conducted since then, point to a simple short answer to the question of how to spend money in a happiness-maximizing way: buy experiences, not things. But now new research is complicating that picture by suggesting that some products may create as much happiness as experiences — and that nerds and hobbyists may get a bigger happiness boost from mere “stuff” than the rest of us.

There are solid reasons for researchers' emphasis on choosing experiences versus products, as Gilovich and two of his students at Cornell, Amit Kumar and Lily Jampol, explain in a literature review soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. At the most basic level, experiences tie more into our sense of identity, of who we are, than products do (which defines you more: your choice of hobbies and travel destinations, or your preferred brand of smartphone?).

Experiences are also more social: People are more likely to talk about them and derive more satisfaction from doing so. In one experiment, for example, van Boven, Gilovich, and Margaret Campbell asked participants to talk either about important experiential purchases they had made, or important material ones. Participants rated both conversations and their partners as more enjoyable when they talked about experiences. Studies have also shown that experiences are less susceptible to the “Keeping up with the Joneses” effect that makes purchasing things so exhausting — we don’t tend to adversely compare our experiences to others' the way we do with products.

But an increasing amount of recent research has started to focus on the overlap between objects and experiences, or what Gilovich and other researchers call “experiential products”  — material objects which can also help generate meaningful experiences.

For example, while Gilovich said that he hasn’t yet conducted the research to back this up, he suspects there’s a category of people who will likely see a greater happiness bump at acquiring material objects than the rest of us: what he calls “connoisseurs,” and what the rest of us might call “nerds.” That is, for people who are really into a given type of object — whether baseball cards or scarves or video games or whatever else — “The experience of buying and thinking about buying is as big as the actual purchase itself,” he told Science of Us. Plus, “You then bond with other people who do similar kinds of things, like all the people at Comic-Con who have been in the news.”

The benefits of experiential products may in part be a matter of perception. Elizabeth Dunn, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, suggests that “Focusing on the experiential aspects of what you buy seems to be better than focusing on the material aspects.” That is, research suggests that seeing a TV or a bicycle as a gateway to great experiences will bring more happiness than focusing on their specs or comparing them to friends’ equivalent purchases.

Darwin Guevarra of the University of Michigan and Ryan Howell of San Francisco State also studied experiential products recently (PDF), and they found that these products appeared to provide as much happiness as “life experiences." It “was not actually what we expected when we started this series of studies,” Howell said — they expected experiential products to fall somewhere in the middle between products and life experiences. They argued that experiential products and life experiences provide happiness in different ways: the former primarily by bestowing a sense of competence (being good at playing video games or mountain-biking or playing the ukulele), the latter primarily by bestowing a sense of connection to others and the wider world.

Everyone involved in researching happiness and purchasing acknowledges it’s a young field with a pile of unanswered questions. What we know is limited in important ways: The literature is dominated by papers that focus on the “afterglow value” experienced after something is consumed, rather than the pleasure elicited by waiting for it (anticipatory value), or consuming it (momentary value), both of which have received scant attention. There’s some early evidence to suggest waiting for an experience is more pleasant than waiting to acquire a product, at least according to an as-yet-unpublished paper let by Kumar at Cornell, while Dunn has written that products, especially those that can be used multiple times, may provide more in-the-moment happiness (you only experience a concert or a vacation once, but you enjoy a coat every time you put it on).

Dunn is also beginning to look into another type of potentially happiness-enhancing purchase: paying to not have an experience. At great expense, some people buy or rent housing closer to their jobs to cut down on their commute time. Other people pay to have their laundry done for them, or to outsource chores using services like Task Rabbit. Is this a happiness-maximizing move? The simplest question to ask when pondering a purchase, Dunn told Science of Us, is “Will this purchase change the way I spend my time?” It’s a humbling question when you think about how we spend on objects — slightly more advanced phones, for example — where the answer is clearly "no," but it bodes well for the results of future studies focusing on paying to avoid laundry or house-cleaning.

Given how slippery a concept happiness is, how fiercely resistant to quantification, it’s no wonder that science can’t give us definitive answers on iPhone vs. Android, or on a slightly smaller apartment versus a 20-minute-longer commute. But research does suggest there are simple things we could be asking ourselves before we buy things: Will this be part of the story I tell about myself? Can I imagine myself telling an entertaining story about it to others? Does it tie into my identity in a meaningful way? Or, per Dunn, will it change how I spend my time?

A few of these questions — perhaps coupled with a deep breath or two — may help soothe the worst symptoms of Amazon overload.