Really Experiencing the Holidays

pexels-photo-190931While Christmas is often visualized with a heap of neatly wrapped presents under a tree, a growing body of research suggests that true happiness comes from a very different sort of gift giving.

A team of psychological researchers, including Dr. Amit Kumar and Dr. Thomas Gilovich, have worked to distinguish between the happiness gained from buying material possessions and that derived from pursuing memorable experiences, arguing that material purchases fail to create the same lasting happiness.

Drs. Kumar and Gilovich have spent years examining this problem, establishing a multitude of advantages for what they call “experiential purchases” over “material purchases.” The former include vacations, concerts, and other passing events, as opposed to objects like a new laptop or jacket.

In a 2014 study, they found that “experiential purchases” make consumers happier for longer by promoting social relationships and self-affirmation. Consumers are also more likely to regret extravagant “material purchases,” as anyone who has impulsively splurged can appreciate.

In another study, Drs. Kumar and Gilovich, joined by Dr. Matthew Killingsworth, concluded that “experiential purchases” lead to greater happiness even before the event. While the experience itself cannot be discounted, they found that the anticipation contributed significantly to overall happiness.

This anticipation of an exciting event leads consumers to think, not just about the experience, but also about what it means in an abstract way and how it will connect them to like-minded people.

Moreover, while it is exciting to imagine a new laptop, such a purchase is predictable. There are only so many novel uses for material possessions, making them that much less exciting. Experiences like vacations, on the other hand, are less predictable, enhancing this anticipatory pleasure.

Dr. Killingsworth has also explained that these differences are deeply tied into human psychology. Material possessions certainly last much longer, so shouldn’t they result in more pleasure over time? He explains that our brains are inclined to “wander,” dwelling on past events or future anxieties, and often our brains wander into unpleasant territory.

Instead, pleasurable experiences can give the mind something uplifting to contemplate. Rather than thinking about upcoming job stress, we can think about how great last night’s concert was or daydream about next weekend’s trip to the beach.

Moreover, exciting activities, he explains, help bind people together. While studying the behavior of people waiting in long lines, Dr. Killingsworth found that those waiting outside of concerts engaged in social behavior with strangers, such as starting friendly discussions about the band. This sort of behavior stood in stark contrast to the riots that so prominently mark consumer frenzies.

This is an increasingly influential train of thought, as even government agencies and retailers have joined them in calling for people to go out and experience the world rather than indulging in commercial purchases.

In 2015, REI urged customers to “opt outside,” exploring nature instead of buying products on Black Friday. Similarly, California, joined by several other states, has offered free passes to state parks in an effort to dispel post-Thanksgiving commercialism.

For more information on gift-giving and gratitude, check out our blogs here and here.

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