Harvard Psychologist Explains Why Buying Experiences Makes People Happier Than Buying Things

Trek everest
Everest? It’s a good buy. fkehren/flickr

We make two kinds of purchases.

We buy things: clothes, cars, and home goods.

We buy experiences: meals, vacations, and movies.

Research shows that experiences are the much better buy — if you’re looking to maximise the happiness for your dollars.

In one study of over a thousand Americans, people were asked to think about a material and experiential purchase they made with the hope of increasing their happiness.

When they thought on which one made them happier, 57% of them said that the experiential buy gave them more happiness. Only 34% of respondents said material purchases make them happier.

In a paper, Harvard psychologist and “Stumbling on Happiness” author Daniel Gilbert said that it has to do with the way we relate to objects versus events. We adapt to things quickly, but we get to anticipate and remember events.

“After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor to install in a new condo,” Gilbert and his coauthors say, “homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet.”

But “in contrast,” the authors continue, “their memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight.”

There’s another reason why experiential buys — like a weekly cooking class — make for better investments in your personal enjoyment.

When you buy experiences, you get to see a change happen in your environment and in yourself.

“Whereas cherry floorboards generally have the same size, shape, and colour on the last day of the year as they did on the first,” the authors say, “each session of a year-long cooking class is different from the one before.”

Lastly, Gilbert argues that buying experiences makes us happy because we turn them into a part of our identities. If you take three weeks to explore Nepal, your treks around the Himalayas will become a part of who you think you are.