Can buying a video game make you happier than buying a new piece of expensive jewelry? Video gamers would answer, "yes," and now, a team of psychologists agrees with them by suggesting that purchases that offer experiences are better for your well-being than material goods.
Previous studies have already shown that buying experiences, such as travel, concert tickets and skydiving lessons, can provide a better sense of well-being than material items. Part of the reason for that is because experiences stay with us longer than material things, and the anticipation of those experiences keeps us happy even before we have them. Experiences are also more social.
"Purchased experiences provide memory capital," says Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. "We don't tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object."
However, this new research, done by a team of psychologists at the University of Michigan, looks at products that provide both material goods and experiences, such as video games, musical instruments and sports equipment. These purchases promote well-being by tapping into our personal identities, teaching us new skills and giving us a sense of belonging with like-minded individuals.
In their study, researchers asked participants about their most recent purchase and how happy it made them feel. Participants assigned their purchases into one of three categories: life experiences, experiential products and material items.
When the results were tallied, the researchers found that experiential items did not just make people happier than material products, but that they provided nearly the same sense of well-being as actual life experiences.
"When we first wanted to explore this hybrid category of experiential products, we believed that even if it provided more happiness than material items, it would consistently be less than life experiences," says Darwin Guevarra, the study's lead author. "We were surprised with the finding that experiential products afforded similar levels of happiness as life experiences."
The most likely explanation is that such purchases, including video games, still offer a form of life experience which satisfies more of our psychological needs.
So what does this research boil down to? There is an old adage that money cannot buy happiness. However, as most experiences and even experiential products usually cost money, perhaps in some cases, it does.