It’s been over a decade since American psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich concluded that doing things makes people happier than having things. “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question” was the title of the study they published in 2003 (PDF), and it’s been cited hundreds of times since. Many people now recognize that spending money on, say, a plane ticket for a vacation is more satisfying in the long run than purchasing a new television for the same price. But happiness studies keep evolving, and social scientists continue to find new ways of understanding precisely how our economic choices affect well-being.
A new paper, this one also co-authored by Thomas Gilovich, hones in on another difference between experiential and material purchases: how people feel before they make these purchases, when they’re simply entertaining thoughts of booking flights to the Caribbean or going to the movies, or thinking about shopping for clothing or jewelry. Gilovich and his colleagues asked subjects to think about either an experiential or material purchase they were planning on making very soon, evaluate whether their anticipation made them feel excited or impatient, and rate the overall pleasantness of the anticipation. The researchers also conducted a separate study in which they polled 2,226 adults on their iPhones at random times to ask whether the individuals were, in that moment, contemplating any future purchases (and if so, whether the purchase would be experiential or material, and whether they associated the thoughts with markedly pleasant, exciting, or impatient anticipatory feelings).
Another element of the research involved asking subjects to remember how they felt while standing in lines waiting to make purchases. The researchers also scoured newspaper archives for stories mentioning people waiting in lines to make purchases.
All of the studies indicated that anticipation of an experience is more exciting and pleasant than the anticipation of a material purchase—regardless of the price of the purchase. In the case of crowds queuing up to make purchases, those in line for an experience (such as a play or admission to a theme park) generally are in better moods and on better behavior than those in line to buy material goods. In a press release, Gilovich said one reason the research is important to society is that it “suggests that overall well-being can be advanced by providing an infrastructure that affords experiences—such as parks, trails, beaches—as much as it does material consumption.”