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What makes people happier -- objects or experiences?

        Science | Emotions

Happiness: Materialism vs. Experientialism
French philosopher John Paul Sartre.
French philosopher John Paul Sartre.
Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

There's been a lot of research dedicated to the study of materialism. Beginning in the 1950s, philosopher John Paul Sartre divided ways of attaining happiness into three categories: having, doing and being. The third, being, warrants another article in itself, so we'll just concentrate on having and doing for now. By the 1990s, when sociologists and psychologists began to train their sights on the study of gaining external happiness, Sartre's concepts of having and doing had become the psychosocial ideas of materialism and experientialism.

The results of this intense study reflected rather poorly on materialism. In fact, psychologists have linked materialism to personality disorders and maladies like narcissism, social anxiety and general dissatisfaction with life [source: Weinberger and Wallendorf]. This belief is reflected in at least one school of religious thought: Buddhists feel that material objects actually serve as impediments to true happiness.

Experientialism, on the other hand, has fared better under scientific scrutiny. A study conducted in 2009 at San Francisco State University found that, when compared side by side, experiences made people much happier than objects. The survey asked 154 college students to write about either a certain experience or an object purchased within the last three months just to make him or her happy. The psychologists found that the participants expressed happiness about their purchases -- they were, of course, asked to write about a purchase that made them happy. However, the respondents who wrote about purchases of experiences, like a night out, tended to show more satisfaction when they actually made their purchase. They also showed expressed more satisfaction about the purchase at the time of the survey.

The San Francisco study showed that experiences not only give us greater happiness, they also provide lasting happiness.

What, exactly, is the problem with the concept that objects can bring happiness? Why does materialism get such a bad rap? Even more, why do experiences seem to make us more profoundly happy?


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