As people with a lot of money will tell you, most of that cash ends up being spent on things. You know, things — we’re talking fancy shoes, platinum watches, souped-up jet-skis. We are a culture that loves things, and every day we prove it by buying more and more things.
Then the question becomes, what are we buying all these things for? While some people are just trying to have more things than everyone else in their life (I personally have a lot of my personal worth tied up in owning more video games than my roommate), most people would say they’re buying things to make themselves happy.
But is being happy enough?
Most of us want to be better people, and the clearest way to be happy — really, truly happy, is to help out others. And it’s starting to sound like the quickest way to being a good person is by spending money not on things, but on experiences.
Thomas Gilovich, the co-author of this study published in the journal Emotion, says people who spend money on experiences not only tend to express more gratitude but also engage in a more generous behavior toward others, which ends up making them better human beings.
Gilovich and his co-researchers, Amit Kumar and Jesse Walker, conducted several experiments to better understand how spending money in different ways affected a person’s emotions and behavior toward others. They found “a certain type of consumption — experiential consumption — is more likely to foster feelings of gratitude than the consumption of material goods. And by prompting greater feelings of gratitude, it also leads to more prosocial behavior.” The study results appeared in the journal Emotion.
“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” Gilovich said in a statement. “You might say, ‘This new couch is cool,’ but you’re less likely to say ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’ But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go.’ People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it — or they don’t express it as often as they do for their experiences.”
As part of his research, Gilovich and his colleagues looked at 1,200 online customer reviews – half of which were purchases made for the sake of ‘doing’ (like vacations, restaurant meals, cinema tickets), and a half which were purchase made for the sake of ‘having’ (like clothing, furniture, jewelry). They found that reviews about vacations and meals were filled with positivity and gratitude than the reviews on clothing and furniture.
In another experiment, 297 participants were asked to think about a recent purchase of over $100, including experiential and material purchases. They were then asked to rate how grateful they were for that purchase on a scale of 1 to 9. And not surprisingly, the experiential group reported higher scores (an average of 7.36) than the group that chose material possessions (average 6.91).
Link Between Gratitude And Altruistic Behavior
Finally, to determine how gratitude stemming from a purchase affects people’s behavior toward others, the researchers performed two exercises. First, the participants were asked to think about a meaningful purchase, either experiential or material, for a few minutes. And second, they were given an unrelated task of dividing $10 between themselves and an anonymous person.
Again, results showed that people who thought about an experience as a meaningful purchase ended up giving about $1 to $2 more, on average, than the group who thought about material possessions.
According to Amit Kumar, Co-author of the paper, this link between gratitude and good behavior “not only applies to the consumers of experiential consumption but also to others in their orbit as well.” Which is pretty cool!
The researchers had some theories about why spending money on experiences seemed to make people kinder and more generous. For one, when we buy experiences, they tend to be in line with our values, which “is likely to promote more of a sense of gratitude than dividing one’s attention between what one has and what others have,” the study’s authors wrote. Experiences also contribute to our sense of identity and social connection. Both can make us feel more grateful.
The type of gratitude people feel when reflecting on an experience they purchased matters as well. Often, our feelings of gratitude are targeted. You might feel grateful toward your grandmother because she bought you the perfect Christmas present. When you feel this kind of gratitude, you’re often inspired to give back to a specific person. But gratitude is sometimes untargeted, like when you experience a general feeling of thankfulness for having good luck. In those cases, a general feeling of gratitude can inspire you to “pay it forward” to another person.
Volunteers distribute donated food into Thanksgiving meal boxes at a food bank | Andrew Burton/Getty Images
“The emotional state of feeling grateful when there is no one to thank — when one feels grateful for being alive, for good fortune, or, yes, for an unusually satisfying experience — can lead to a powerful urge to do something with that gratitude, such as giving to anonymous others,” the researchers wrote.
The warm and fuzzy feelings that buying experiences generate could also create a “positive feedback loop,” the researchers said. People might buy experiences, feel grateful, and then buy more experiences rather than material goods to perpetuate the feeling. On a large scale, such a shift in spending habits could lead to a more generous society. The researchers even suggested governments might want to look into ways they could encourage people to buy more experiences and thus promote cooperation and kindness.
“If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude and happiness and make them more generous as well,” Gilovich said.