Social class determines whether buying experiences or things brings greater happiness

October 3, 2018, Association for Psychological Science
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

What is the best way to spend money to increase your happiness? It may depend, in part, on how wealthy you are, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In a series of studies, researchers Jacob C. Lee of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), Deborah Hall of Arizona State University, and Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California found that only individuals who were relatively higher in showed the well-known effect of greater from purchasing experiences, such as going to a concert or the movies, compared with purchasing material goods, such as a pair of shoes or accessories.

Lower class individuals, on the other hand, did not show the same pattern—in some cases, they reported the same degree of happiness from experiential and , whereas in others they actually reported that material purchases made them happier.

The conclusion that buying experiences yields more happiness than buying tangible objects is known as the experiential advantage.

"However, this simple answer to the question of how to best spend your money does not consider the huge economic disparities in our society," Wood notes. "We reasoned that the basic motives that shape consumer decisions would vary between higher-class and lower-class consumers. Thus, we anticipated that the degree of happiness obtained from different types of purchases would also vary by social class."

Individuals of higher social class have an abundance of resources, which means they can afford to focus more on internal growth and self-development. Because are more closely related to the self than material ones, higher-class individuals should derive more happiness from an investment in an experience.

People who have fewer resources, on the other hand, are likely to be more concerned with resource management and making wise purchases.

"For lower-class consumers, spending money on concert tickets or a weekend trip might not result in greater happiness than buying a new pair of shoes or a flatscreen TV," Hall explains. "In fact, in some of our studies, lower class consumers were happiest from purchasing things, which makes sense given that material goods have practical benefit, resale value, and are physically longer lasting."

In an initial meta-analysis, the researchers examined data from over 20 studies investigating the experiential advantage among college students at private and public institutions. Consistent with the idea that social class moderates experiential advantage, students with higher tuition costs and those attending private institutions reported greater experiential advantage than did students with lower tuition costs and those attending public schools.

In their next study, Lee, Hall, and Wood had participants recall both an experiential and a material they had recently made and indicate which purchase made them happier. Participants of higher social class reported that their recent experiential purchases provided greater happiness. Conversely, individuals of lower social class reported greater happiness from recent material purchases.

Another study, in which participants were randomly assigned to recall a recent purchase of either an experience or material good, also showed an experiential advantage for participants who had an annual household income of $80,000 or more and at least a bachelor's degree. In this case, participants who had relatively lower income and education (less than $30,000 annual household income and a high school degree or less) reported similar levels of happiness, regardless of whether they thought about a recent experiential or material purchase.

But participants didn't actually have to have lower income to show this pattern of results. The final study revealed that those who simply imagined that their monthly income had just decreased by 50% reported feeling similar levels of happiness from recent material and experiential purchases that they had made. In contrast, participants who imagined that their monthly income had just increased by 50% reported greater happiness from experiential purchases. That is, the experiential advantage was muted or amplified in response to even momentary changes in consumers' mindset regarding their financial resources.

The pattern of results was similar regardless of how the researchers measured social class, whether by income, education, or participants' subjective judgments. Furthermore, the relationship between social class and purchase happiness seemed to hold over time, even months after purchases were made, and regardless of how much the purchases cost.

"The take-home message is that, when it comes to increasing one's happiness through discretionary spending, there is no single 'right' answer of what to buy," Lee says. People's available resources are an important factor when deciding whether to purchase experiences or to be happier.

The authors are currently conducting additional studies to better understand the specific consumer motives that underlie class-based differences in the experiential advantage.

Explore further: Living happily in a material world: Material purchases can bring happiness

More information: Jacob C. Lee et al, Experiential or Material Purchases? Social Class Determines Purchase Happiness, Psychological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617736386

Related Stories

Living happily in a material world: Material purchases can bring happiness

December 21, 2015
With holiday shopping season in full swing, everyone's looking for the perfect gift. For those who like to shop, there's good news: Material things can bring happiness. In a recent study from the journal Social Psychological ...

Goal setting strategies can influence positive emotions

September 18, 2018
For most people, the sense of happiness derived from a luxurious vacation, a good movie or a tasty dinner at a restaurant may seem short-lived, but what if it were possible to extend these feelings of enjoyment?

'Experiential products' provide same happiness boost as experiences, study finds

July 24, 2014
Material items designed to create or enhance an experience, also known as "experiential products," can make shoppers just as happy as life experiences, according to new research from San Francisco State University.

Can money buy happiness? For some, the answer is no

May 1, 2014
Many shoppers, whether they buy material items or life experiences, are no happier following the purchase than they were before, according to a new study from San Francisco State University.

Experiences trump things, even before purchase

September 29, 2014
(HealthDay)—People derive value from the anticipation of purchasing something, and this anticipation tends to be greater for an experiential purchase than for a material purchase, according to a study published online Aug. ...

Recommended for you

Levels of gene-expression-regulating enzyme altered in brains of people with schizophrenia

December 14, 2018
A study using a PET scan tracer developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has identified, for the first time, epigenetic differences between the brains of individuals ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

Increased motor activity linked to improved mood

December 12, 2018
Increasing one's level of physical activity may be an effective way to boost one's mood, according to a new study from a team including scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the ...

Length of eye blinks might act as conversational cue

December 12, 2018
Blinking may feel like an unconscious activity, but new research by Paul Hömke and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, suggests that humans unknowingly perceive eye blinks as nonverbal cues when ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
not rated yet Oct 03, 2018
Where does buying knowledge stand in this ??
VOR_
not rated yet Oct 04, 2018
The take home message is that our current version of capitalism and democracy are no where near their potential for our health as a nation.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.