Experiences Won’t Make You Happier Than Possessions
Be skeptical of pop psychology studies
You will be happier if you spend your money on experiences rather than possessions… or so says the modern truism, supposedly proven by psychological science. Researchers call it the “experience recommendation.”
It sounds good, right? It’s very flattering to a certain class of worldly people who spent their capital on accruing anecdotes. Ah, yes—we who go on retreats in Bali are much happier than the unsophisticated materialistic people who spend money on handbags or whatever.
It also supports the notion, which occasionally floats around, that wealthy people aren’t really made happy by their fancy possessions, which is comforting if you like to believe that wealthy people are idiots.
Finally, in the age of climate change, you might think it’s noble to advocate for less materialistic lifestyles and to prompt people to reexamine their purchasing habits. (Although, given the environmental impact of air travel and road trips, experiences may not be what you want people to be buying, if carbon is what you’re worried about.)
But I think that the wisdom advocating experience over “stuff” is far from proven. In fact, I think it’s full of holes. It illustrates one particular failure mode of modern psychology, wherein “science” involves declaring you’ve discovered a truth about human nature after asking people a simplistic set of questions that poorly measure a complicated reality.
Most of life is lived in the unmemorable, in-between moments
The core of evidence behind the experience recommendation is survey data, collected in studies like Van Boven & Gilovich 2003, the original research in this genre. You ask people to recall two purchases: an experiential purpose (dinner, a movie, something like that) or a material purchase (clothing, tools, etc). Then you ask which made them happier. Apparently, if you do that, you will find that people typically say that experiential purposes made them happier—not by a huge amount, but by a noticeable margin.
Isn’t this proof that experiential purchases do make people happier?
No. It’s proof that people recall them slightly more positively when prompted by a brief inquiry. This is not the same thing, at all.
Let’s take two purchases: a pair of nice walking shoes, and a lovely dinner at Chez Panisse. The dinner will be a memorably intense aesthetic experience: luscious clam risotto, perfectly chosen wine, excellent service. The shoes just can’t compete in terms of memory-making. That’s not what they’re for—you wouldn’t want a pair of shoes to offer one incredible peak experience before falling into disuse unless you were going to the Met Gala.
Shoes are supposed to offer a small but significant improvement to your life hundreds of times. They’re actually supposed to prevent the formation of memories if they’re working properly—specifically, memories of sore feet or blisters.
Conceivably, this small but significant improvement of many sunny walks could dwarf the dinner in terms of overall enjoyment, but it certainly won’t be as memorable. Thus, the happiness granted by the shoes will be less apparent to the remembering self. Fortunately, though, the remembering self is not all there is to life.
Most of life is lived in the unmemorable, in-between moments, the kind of moments in which well-chosen possessions (furniture, clothing, cooking equipment, nice soap) can improve.
We need a more sophisticated tool than a brief survey to measure what makes us happy
So we should expect there to be a huge bias toward experiences when asked about whether they make us happier than possessions. But we shouldn’t expect it to reflect the reality of which one actually contributes more, in total, to our happiness. We also shouldn’t really expect to be able to measure that in any accurate way—at least not without a tool much more sophisticated than a brief survey.
If I hadn’t thought about this subject before, and someone asked me, “Hey, which purchase made you happier, your Allen Edmonds cap toe oxfords2, or that one dinner at Chez Panisse?” I’d probably say Chez Panisse.
But what if they then said, “Keep in mind that you’ve worn the shoes hundreds of times, and have been happier for each of those times, and will wear them for years to come, but you may not recall this as clearly as an isolated glorious experience, like Chez Panisse—what do you choose now?” I might switch my answer. And this isn’t really that surprising. People often don’t consider their opinions carefully until you ask questions that prompt reflection3.
There are a bunch of studies that duplicate the original “finding,” such as Kumar, Gilovich, and Killingsworth 2020. They did a survey that shows experiential purchases give you greater in-the-moment satisfaction at and around the time of purchase. Of course! That’s what they’re designed to do! You haven’t proven anything about real aggregate happiness over the long term.
Also, material purchases have an advantage in contributing to happiness that experiential purposes don’t: They can combine with each other. For example, each spatula or funnel I buy contributes to a well-stocked kitchen. So, while it might be true that a spatula will make me less happy than a pizza at the time, my material purchases will contribute to my ability to skillfully feed people I love, a source of deep ongoing happiness.
This is true, mutatis mutandis, of many other possessions: Another item of clothing can unlock a bunch of possibilities in your wardrobe, another tool can open up potential projects that were previously out of reach, or a piece of art can be a conversation starter when you host guests or an object of daily contemplation.
In other words, accumulating possessions can give you access to new kinds of experiences, even if any individual purchase doesn’t itself create a novel memory.
This brings us to a somewhat awkward question: Does it even make sense to differentiate material and experiential purchases, given that every possession is an experience?
Possessions create experiences
I can’t, myself, name a single material purchase that doesn’t create an experience. We don’t yet live in a Philip K. Dick novel where you can buy a drug whose only effect is to make you forget you bought and consumed it.
Fine, OK—but there is still a spectrum here that makes intuitive sense. On one end, purchases designed to provide a one-off experience from which nothing material is retained: dinner out. On the other end, purchases that create relatively boring experiences: a hammer, socks. And we can compare the properties of either end of the spectrum and maybe learn something.
But what happens if we look right in the middle, at the purchases which seem especially likely to produce colorful experiences? What if we ask people to compare the happiness they get from experiential purchases with purchases of more “experiential possessions,” like sports equipment or musical instruments?
There is only one study I know of that does this, which is Guevarra & Howell 2012. And they find that “experiential possessions” purchases result in the same reported satisfaction as experience purchases.
If we take this finding seriously, it seems a little embarrassing for the notion: “You’ll be happier buying more experiences and fewer possessions.”
What we’re left with is, “Buy experiences instead of possessions, or buy possessions that enrich your life experientially, like a guitar or something, if you want to make your future self happy when they are answering a brief survey.” This is starting to look less interesting.
It’s worth pointing out that not everyone wants to buy musical instruments and other “experiential possessions.” Some people just like stuff—pretty things, lifestyle objects. Are they fooling themselves? Or are they just genuinely in touch with their wants?
What if… people are… different from one another?
When I look around myself, I see two kinds of consumers, broadly speaking. One tends more toward having nice possessions: They have nicely decorated homes and stylish clothing. The other tends more toward having crazy experiences: They’ve traveled widely for meditation retreats, exotic meals, and maybe the occasional orgy.
According to the experience recommendation, the former group has been making inferior choices—the latter group, with its enthusiasm about how you really must try the beef in Argentina, should be happier. But to me, these just seem like different kinds of people. They have different characteristics. The former is more interested in creating a comfortably structured day-to-day experience that can house slight variations. The latter is more interested in a wilder, episodic way of life.
Has anyone ever tried separating these groups and measuring whether the experience recommendation holds up for both of them? What if we separated a study group into “material buyer” and “experience buyer” categories, based on their ongoing purchase preferences, and checked whether the experience recommendation held up with both groups?
One study I know of has4: Zhang et al 2014. And it found that the “material buyer” group saw no happiness benefits from making experiential purchases.
This is one survey, sure. But I see no reason to trust it less than any of the other surveys in this literature—it boasts a larger sample size than the original experiences vs. possessions study. If we incorporate it into our view, how should we update the experience recommendation?
I guess it should go something like, “Try to buy experiences instead of possessions, or maybe buy possessions that enrich your life by enabling novel experiences. Or, if you’re the kind of person who tends to buy possessions over experiences, ignore us. We wouldn’t dare make broad generalities and purport to know better than you do about what makes you happy based on a couple of surveys. Happiness is way too complicated for that.”
This is a somewhat silly recommendation and I should reward your time with better ones. So, I have some alternate recommendations to make, although I should warn you that they are not backed by scientific studies.
Some arguably less silly purchase recommendations
Learn what you like—know that this is possible
It’s good to be open to change. But your wants are not random. By the time you’re, say, in your late twenties, you probably have a pretty good sense of whether you’re more of a “possessions person” or an “experiences person.” Trust that you can actually learn, at least broadly, what makes you happy, and that you know yourself more deeply than a pop psychology article does.
Understand that both materialism and thrill-seeking can be dead ends
Yes, there are people who make themselves unhappy with possessions—hoarders, or people who think that the next luxury handbag is going to finally make them complete.
But there are also people who make themselves unhappy with experiences—those who are absolutely consumed with the need to make their entire lives into the most glamorous Instagram feed possible, who feel a sense of creeping disappointment when yet another spa day doesn’t bring mystical revelations. There are all sorts of different ways to spend wisely and foolishly.
Remember that the experiencing self and the remembering self are different
Human beings crave novelty, and we also like comfortable structure. We look back on novel pleasures and challenges with fondness, but we also benefit from day-to-day enjoyment. It’s nice to try to satisfy both needs, to take care of the longings of the present and the future.
But you can’t do it perfectly. Given that you change constantly—and that your understanding of your life changes along with you—your future self is a customer who is impossible to fully satisfy. If you look back and sometimes feel that much of what you’ve done is regrettable, at least take comfort that you didn’t ask permission from pop psychology first.
This essay was highly influenced by the work of Adam Mastroianni and Literal Banana, neither of whom should take the blame for this writing if there’s something very wrong with it because they did not contribute directly. Both are recommended; only one is a banana. Photo credit for the preview image goes to William Eggleston.
I think a good example of survey-based psychology looks more like this, wherein a surprising pattern turns up in survey data, it survives some surveys specifically designed to try to make it go away, and, in the end, a hypothesis to explain it is advanced cautiously and playfully.
Don’t pay sticker price for these. At least once a year, Allen Edmonds has a 50% off sale. Also, you can find some used ones on eBay that have been refurbished to better-than-new condition by high-quality shoemakers.
Conversational techniques like deep canvassing seemingly show that this can be true even with opinions on highly contentious issues, like race and politics.
There are a couple of previous studies that tried to go after this and encountered mixed results, but they relied on the declared values of buyers instead of their actual buying tendencies. I regard this as a less reliable method for obvious reasons: People do not necessarily declare their values accurately on surveys, and there is a social desirability bias toward saying that you value experiences over possessions.
Sasha Chapin is a writer who lives, with some reluctance, in the Bay Area. His newsletter is the best way to find more of his writing, and his Twitter is a source of something or other. He is the author of a memoir about being bad at chess.
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As with most advice, I would say aiming for moderation in the approach is all it's about. You need a certain level of material comfort to enjoy and purchase experiences and you need a good amount of experience to determine your tastes and needs materially. Neither is separate. Love the reminder! <3
Experience or possessions? I'd say, both in balance and not too much of either so appreciation is maintained, which is what matters in the end. Seems simple. (The studies, to me, seem prosperous.)
Correction: preposterous. :-)