Study shows people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than things

Written by: 
Helam Lau

A study done by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, had concluded people’s happiness comes more from experiences rather than material things. BYU-Hawaii students and faculty also agreed.


Zachary Beckstead, a psychology professor at BYUH, said he has encountered situations where he had to choose between spending money on experiences or material things - especially with his family. For example, one time “we had extra money, like a tax return. We could either buy a new TV or some cool gadget, [but] we chose to travel as a family... We wanted to spend our money on the things that are more valuable because of those amazing experiences we have.”


As he recalled the memories of travel with his family, he said, “When we look at the pictures with our kids, there is something that connects us. I asked my kids if they would rather have toys. They answered, ‘We would rather go see family back in Utah.’”


Beckstead said by choosing to spend time as a family, it has helped them stay close and have bonding experiences. “There is something the experiences do, which is our relationships that are built upon history.  


“It can also go to another direction where you can have hurt feelings. You can have something you can refer to later on in this life. At some point of your life, you could ask friends or family, ‘Do you remember you did this or you did that?’”


In Gilvoch’s experiment, he asked people to report their happiness between when they bought something or experienced it. The results showed people’s satisfaction with the things they bought went down over time whereas their satisfaction with experiences they spent money on went up.


He explained in an interview with Fast Company, “You’ll get more happiness spending money on experiences like going to art exhibits, doing outdoor activities, learning a new skill, or traveling.”


Kenny Boone Haynie, a freshman from Texas majoring in exercise science, said he was 16 when he realized the importance of saving his money to go on a mission for the LDS Church rather than spending money on a basketball, new shoes, or T-shirts.


Haynie said he appreciated the experience he had on his mission, and what made the experience more special was the money he had saved for it.


He said if it was not for his mission experience, he would have never learned important things from his mission president.


“My mission president has changed my life for the better. He invited me to lose myself in the scriptures and feast upon the words of God.


“As I took his counsel, it changed my whole course of my mission and my life... It was a little incredible experience that has had a huge impact on me.”


Haynie shared how his experiences have been more memorable to him than buying things.


“Growing up, I have played a lot of sports, but rock climbing is probably the one that is the most expensive. My friends like to buy shoes and clothes. I like that too, but I would also invite them to do rock climbing.


“I know it costs a lot more money, but thinking of the memories, it is worth it. I feel like I remember the experiences of rock climbing a lot more than I remember shopping…That’s how you can differentiate between buying a thing or experience.”


Beckstead said according to research in social psychology, most people regret their decision after buying something. “People are in fear of missing out, and have the mindset of, ‘I could have bought something better.’ It leads to the sense of emptiness. It doesn’t allow us to have the social need that we have as a human being.


“In the perspective of a psychologist, it is fundamental to know that we are very social, and positive experiences drive us outside of ourselves to beauty, nature, and other human beings.


“You are always wanting more when you have something nice. It is not just an experience that you have alone. You share it with somebody. That is the qualifier- experiencing with your precious ones.”


Lorraine Leung, a senior from Hong Kong majoring in TESOL, said she also would choose to spend money on experiences rather than things. “This is my last semester at BYUH. I have been planning to challenge myself to go skydiving with my family and friends upon my graduation. There is no skydiving in Hong Kong, and it is definitely something exciting and memorable.”


Leung said she was struggling to decide to go skydiving or not because of the extremely expensive cost. “I could spend that amount of money on other things. However, I am still doing it. I think it is worth it. I cannot do it anymore when I am back in Hong Kong.”


Leung said she believes people who travel are the perfect example of those who understand the impact of an experience compared to buying something. Explaining her thoughts with a Chinese proverb, she quoted, “He that travels far knows much.”


“You just have to try something crazy in your life…People who love traveling would understand why. The happiness brought by purchasing things is not the same as gaining a brand new experience that you haven’t had before. The satisfaction cannot be obtained from shopping, which I also really enjoy.”

Date Published: 
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, November 11, 2017