Buying so-called "life experiences" makes Americans happier than material goods such as cars, but they tend to favour the latter in the mistaken belief that they provide better value, according to a new study.
Researchers interviewed people before and after they made purchases and found that consumers felt life experiences – like a weekend trip – made them happier and were a better use of money than material items.
"People actually do know, and accurately predict, that life experiences will make them happier," study co-author Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, said in a university news release.
"What they really underestimate is how much monetary value they will get out of a life experience," he added. "Even though they're told experiences will make them happier and they know experiences will make them happier, they still perceive material items as being a better value."
Economic value of memories
Part of the reason for this is that life experiences offer only memories, while people know the actual value of their material goods, said Howell, who has done extensive research on spending and happiness.
"We naturally associate economic value with stuff. I bought this car, it's worth $8 000," he explained. "We have a hard time estimating the economic value we would place on our memories."
The importance of this line of research goes far beyond shopping, according to the authors.
"Happiness is not some fleeting, positive emotion we experience in the moment," Howell said.
"There are tremendous benefits to happiness. Companies want their employers to be happier because they are more productive. Doctors want their patients to be happier because they will be healthier. We should try to figure out how to help people maximise their happiness because of all the benefits that come from it," he concluded.
The study was published online recently in the Journal of Positive Psychology.