The Future of the Dollar (Cornell Studies in Money)

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Initially, their happiness with those purchases was ranked about the same.

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Ironically, the fact that a material thing is ever present works against it, making it easier to adapt to. It fades into the background and becomes part of the new normal.

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But while the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identity. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you.


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In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences. One study conducted by Gilovich even showed that if people have an experience they say negatively impacted their happiness, once they have the chance to talk about it, their assessment of that experience goes up. Gilovich attributes this to the fact that something that might have been stressful or scary in the past can become a funny story to tell at a party or be looked back on as an invaluable character-building experience.

Another reason is that shared experiences connect us more to other people than shared consumption. If society takes their research to heart, it should mean not only a shift in how individuals spend their discretionary income, but also place an emphasis on employers giving paid vacation and governments taking care of recreational spaces. By Jay Cassano 4 minute Read. German skydiver via Shutterstock. Since , he has been trying to figure out exactly how and why experiential purchases are so much better than material purchases. In the journal Psychological Science last month, Gilovich and Killingsworth, along with Cornell doctoral candidate Amit Kumar , expanded on the current understanding that spending money on experiences "provide[s] more enduring happiness.

And, yes, it does. Essentially, when you can't live in a moment, they say, it's best to live in anticipation of an experience. Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

Waiting for an experience apparently elicits more happiness and excitement than waiting for a material good and more "pleasantness" too—an eerie metric. By contrast, waiting for a possession is more likely fraught with impatience than anticipation.

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Gilovich's prior work has shown that experiences tend to make people happier because they are less likely to measure the value of their experiences by comparing them to those of others. For example, Gilbert and company note in their new paper, many people are unsure if they would rather have a high salary that is lower than that of their peers, or a lower salary that is higher than that of their peers. With an experiential good like vacation, that dilemma doesn't hold.

Would you rather have two weeks of vacation when your peers only get one? Or four weeks when your peers get eight? People choose four weeks with little hesitation. Experiential purchases are also more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior. Looking back on purchases made, experiences make people happier than do possessions. It's kind of counter to the logic that if you pay for an experience, like a vacation, it will be over and gone; but if you buy a tangible thing, a couch, at least you'll have it for a long time.

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Actually most of us have a pretty intense capacity for tolerance, or hedonic adaptation, where we stop appreciating things to which we're constantly exposed. They deteriorate or become obsolete. It's the fleetingness of experiential purchases that endears us to them.


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  • Either they're not around long enough to become imperfect, or they are imperfect, but our memories and stories of them get sweet with time. Even a bad experience becomes a good story. When it rains through a beach vacation, as Kumar put it, "People will say, well, you know, we stayed in and we played board games and it was a great family bonding experience or something.

    That's a lot harder to do with material purchases because they're right there in front of you. That means making purchasing an experience, which is terrible marketing-speak, but in practical terms might mean buying something on a special occasion or on vacation or while wearing a truly unique hat. Or tying that purchase to subsequent social interaction.

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    Buy this and you can talk about buying it, and people will talk about you because you have it. I can't imagine ever wanting to hear about someone seeing Vampire Weekend, but I get the point. Reasonable people are just more likely to talk about their experiential purchases than their material purchases.

    It's a nidus for social connection. I'm so glad you asked The most interesting part of the new research, to Kumar, was the part that "implies that there might be notable real-world consequences to this study. Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods. It turns out, those sorts of stories are much more likely to occur when people are waiting to acquire a possession than an experience.

    When people are waiting to get concert tickets or in line at a new food truck, their moods tend to be much more positive. So there is opportunity to connect with other people. Research has also found that people tend to be more generous to others when they've just thought about an experiential purchase as opposed to a material purchase.