Why does buying experiences make us happier than buying material goods?

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When it comes to spending disposable income, experiential purchases tend to make people happier than material purchases (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). But why are experiences more satisfying? We propose that the evaluation of experiences tends to be less comparative than that of material possessions, such that potentially invidious comparisons have less impact on satisfaction with experiences than with material possessions. Support for this contention was obtained in 8 studies. We found that participants were less satisfied with their material purchases because they were more likely to ruminate about unchosen options (Study 1); that participants tended to maximize when selecting material goods and satisfice when selecting experiences (Study 2); that participants examined unchosen material purchases more than unchosen experiential purchases (Study 3); and that, relative to experiences, participants’ satisfaction with their material possessions was undermined more by comparisons to other available options (Studies 4 and 5A), to the same option at a different price (Studies 5B and 6), and to the purchases of other individuals (Study 5C). Our results suggest that experiential purchase decisions are easier to make and more conducive to well-being.

Source: “The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases.” from J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Jan;98(1):146-59.

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