Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What makes people happier -- objects or experiences?

        Science | Emotions

Why Experiences Beat Objects on the Happy Meter
People seem to like hearing about your orca whale watching trip more than they like hearing about your new car.
People seem to like hearing about your orca whale watching trip more than they like hearing about your new car.

There are some flaws to the San Francisco study: It surveyed only a specific segment of the larger population -- young adults -- and the data was self-reported. This last part is difficult to overcome in any study of happiness, since emotions are subjective. Still, the study supported other findings: Experience tops objects when it comes to delivering happiness.

The reason for this is still a matter of debate. The lead researcher of the San Francisco study, Ryan Howell, posited that most experiences that are purchased -- again, like that night out -- are shared experiences [source: Landau]. As such, they may provide us with more happiness because they foster bonds with other people. It also feels a lot less like boasting when recalling an experience than when mentioning a newly purchased object. People seem less envious when you tell them about your recent trip than when you talk about your new car, in other words.

Experientialism is also subject to revisionism, which may explain why experiences make us happier. We can manipulate our memories of them to make us even happier. That eighth birthday party you recollected earlier may not have happened precisely the way you remember it. Your impressions of how an object made you feel is a lot less fluid, however.

The results of a study published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research supports this idea. People do derive more pleasure from experiences -- if the experiences themselves turn out positively. In fact, should that experience turn out horribly, the study's authors contend that the purchase could actually worsen the buyer's mood [source: Nicolao et al].

We also become bored with the objects we purchase. The novelty of a tangible item is finite (remember, six to 12 weeks). Experiences, on the other hand, aren't quite as fleeting, possibly because we can revise our memories of experiences. "We don't tend to get bored with happy memories like we do with a tangible object," points out Ryan Howell [source: Howell].

There is one common thread when it comes to experientialism and materialism -- money. Studies of the happiness that experiences and objects may provide examine how things we pay for bring us pleasure. (The third part of Sartre's triumvirate of happiness, being, usually cannot be purchased.) What's significant about the idea that experience can bring happiness is that experience often does cost money. Orca whale watching trips, tickets to Japanese drumming shows, romantic dinners, birthday parties -- all of these things cost money. By extension, then, studies like the one conducted at San Francisco State University have inadvertently proven that money can buy happiness, despite reams of data that show wealthy people aren't any happier than the average Joe.