It’s not all about ‘experiences’. Buying stuff makes us happy for longer

Good news, just in time for the January sales: shopping can make you happy.

A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that material purchases provide more frequent happiness over time, whereas purchasing an experience (such as a theatre ticket) brings more intense happiness on individual occasions.

Previous studies looking at the link between purchases and happiness focused on what people anticipated about shopping or remembered about the items they bought and the experiences they had. This study, by researchers at the University of British Columbia, considered how people felt ‘in the moment’.

They assessed the real-time, momentary happiness people got from material and experiential purchases, up to five times a day for two weeks. By having people record their thoughts in the weeks following their purchases, as well as one month after their purchases, the researchers showed that material and experiential purchases bring two distinct types of happiness.

Material purchases bring repeated happiness over time, whereas experiences that we’ve paid for offer a more intense but fleeting dose.

There is one proviso: the very fact of recording our feelings about a purchase is likely to make us feel happier about it.

Aaron Weidman, the study’s lead author, said: ‘The decision of whether to buy a material thing or a life experience may therefore boil down to what kind of happiness one desires.

‘Consider a holiday shopper deciding between tickets to a concert or a new couch in the living room. The concert will provide an intense thrill for one spectacular night, but then it will end, and will no longer provide momentary happiness, aside from being a happy memory.

‘In contrast, the new couch will never provide a thrilling moment to match the concert, but will keep the owner snug and comfortable each day throughout the winter months.’