Don’t Underestimate the Pleasures of Buying Stuff

By
Girl with presents underneath Christmas tree.
Photo: Science & Society Picture Librar/National Media Museum

Money can and routinely does buy happiness; it all depends on what you do with it. In the last decade or so, the social scientists who study the association between consumerism and happiness have mostly argued that buying experiences — as opposed to things — is the best way to ensure that your purchases ultimately make you happy. Things break, stuff gets lost, but the memories of the trip overseas or the meal at the Michelin-starred restaurant last a lifetime. 

Or so this line of research tends to go. But is it really that simple? The couch I recently bought, for instance, makes me happy every time I use it; same goes for the Apple TV, which I was given for Christmas last year and tend to use happily and concurrently with the couch. Enter a timely new study, published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science by a pair of Canadian psychologists who argue that material things make people plenty happy, too — in some ways, stuff makes people even happier than experiences. It’s just a different kind of happiness.

The researchers — Aaron C. Weidman and Elizabeth W. Dunn, both of the University of British Columbia — draw a distinction between “momentary” and “afterglow” happiness, borrowing from Daniel Kahneman’s differentiation between happiness in your life and happiness about your life. There are the joys that exist mostly in the moment, in other words, and then there is the nostalgic pleasure of reflection. The latter tends to be felt with more intensity, but momentary happiness tends to be felt with more frequency. Weidman and Dunn hypothesized that material items — whether purchased for yourself or received as a gift — would lead to more of those momentary bursts of happiness. Experiences, on the other hand, should lead to more of that reflective sort of happiness.

And that’s exactly what their two experiments found. In one, they took advantage of the holiday season in 2014, asking undergraduates a series of questions — starting on Christmas Day — about the gifts they received. Some of the students were asked to choose a material item they’d been gifted, and others were asked to choose an experience someone had given them, like tickets to a concert or a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant. Three to five times a day for the following two weeks, the students received text messages asking two questions about their gift: “How much is your gift contributing to your happiness in life right now?” and “Are you [experiencing/using] your gift right now?” Finally, around mid-February the students were asked questions about the level of afterglow happiness they were experiencing because of their gift. (“When you think about this purchase, how happy does it make you?” and “How much does this purchase contribute to your overall happiness in life?”)

In both experiments, their results showed that people found more frequent happiness from material gifts as opposed to the experiential ones. But when people were asked to look back at the gifts, people who were asked to reflect on an experience found more of that nostalgic happiness than those who were asked to think about the material item; those in the experiential condition also experienced more intense happiness than those in the material condition. This, the researchers concluded, supports their hypothesis: Stuff totally makes you happy. It’s just a different type and degree of happiness. 

Additionally, it surely also depends on how often you remind yourself to enjoy something you’ve been given or purchased yourself — after all, these people were text-messaged up to five times a day with little reminders to enjoy their gift. Overall, the research suggests that when considering what sorts of purchases will lead to happiness, “the answer may hinge on whether one is seeking an intense but fleeting form of happiness that is accompanied by a rosy afterglow, or a more subtle and frequent form of happiness that will endure for weeks and months.” Experiences are great! But so is stuff.