The holidays are upon us and that means everyone is on the lookout for gifts for their loved ones. The act of giving and receiving a gift does bring joy, but what about the actual purchase? Can material things bring you happiness? It turns out they can, according to researchers.

In a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers showed that material purchases can provide frequent happiness over a period of time while experiential purchases offer more intense levels of happiness albeit on individual occasions.

Earlier works that examined material and experiential purchases in relation to happiness zoomed in on what people anticipate about their shopping spree or remembered about the items or experiences. Elizabeth Dunn and Aaron Weidman from the University of British Columbia, on the other hand, wanted to know what people felt during a certain period of time, like the first two weeks of getting a new tablet computer or sweater.

To get their answer, Dunn and Weidman assessed real-time momentary happiness as people received material and experiential purchases for two weeks, up to five times in a day. Material purchases are classified as items, like a tablet computer or a sweater, while examples of experiential purchases include weekend trips, spa gift cards or tickets to a basketball game.

Participants recorded their thoughts in the weeks that followed their purchases, as well as a month after. Using these accounts, the researchers were able to show that material and experiential purchases bring happiness in two distinct ways: repeated in material purchases and intense but fleeting in experiential purchases.

Say, a person is deciding between getting a new couch or tickets to a concert. A couch is unlikely to provide a thrilling moment, but every time the person sees and uses it, it provides the individual with comfort and warmth throughout the year. If the person opted to get concert tickets instead, they will experience an intense thrill for the night of the event but it will disappear once the event ends, simply leaving a happy memory.

Given it's the holidays, it's also noteworthy that the participants were more satisfied with experiential purchases looking back on their purchases six weeks after Christmas.

"The decision of whether to buy a material thing or a life experience may therefore boil down to what kind of happiness one desires," said Weidman. When buying gifts for others, then it would help to assess as well what kind of happiness they would want.

Photo: Anne Worner | Flickr

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