I have written a few blog entries in the past on the observation from research by Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven as well as by Elizabeth Dunn, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson that people get more happiness out of purchases when those purchases are experiences than when they are material things. So, a ski trip creates more happiness than a new stereo that cost about the same amount of money.
Even in the original research, though, the researchers realized that this distinction is not as clean-cut as it appears. For example, if you buy an expensive car, that could serve as a physical possession. However, that car might also create a variety of driving experiences that lead to happiness.
A paper in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Peter Caprariello and Harry Reis examines the role of sociality on the difference between experiences and things. When you purchase an experience, chances are you are going to share that experience with at least one other person (and perhaps many others). When you purchase a thing, there is a greater chance that the object is something you are going to use alone. These researchers suggest that items you use in a social setting are preferred to those used alone.
As an example, in one study participants were asked to think back to a purchase they made some time in the past. Some people were asked to think about the purchase of an experience (like a movie ticket or trip to an art museum). Other people were asked to think about the purchase of a material possession (like clothes or a stereo sound system). Some people were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use alone. Others were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use with other people.
After thinking about these items, they rated how happy they were with the purchase now, how happy they remember being with that purchase when they made it and whether they thought the purchase was money well-spent.
In this study, the things and experiences that people remembered purchasing did not differ significantly on average in price or length of time since the purchase.
Overall, people were happier with their purchase (both at the time of purchase and at the time of the study) when the item was bought to use socially than when it was bought to use alone. People also rated themselves as happier at the time of purchase when they bought an experience than when they bought a material possession. Surprisingly, they rated the money as better-spent on material goods than on experiences.
What does all this mean?
First, an important part of the difference in happiness that people get from a purchase comes from using that purchase for social interactions. There is still some tendency for purchases of experiences to make people happier than purchases of things above-and-beyond the social aspect (at least at the time of purchase).
People rate money as better-spent on material goods, because once an experiential purchase has been used, it is gone, except as a memory. Material goods stay around longer. Thus, a year after a purchase, you can still use a shirt or a stereo you bought. At best, though, you can only remind yourself of a great trip.
I find it interesting that people think the money is better-spent on material goods, even for possessions that will be used alone that create low-levels of happiness. This finding suggests that people focus their judgments of how they spend their money on the value the purchase rather than on the happiness they get from that purchase.
Ultimately, this work suggests that when you have some discretionary money, it is a good idea to find ways to use it to bring you together with other people. In the long-run, those purchases will help you to buy some happiness.