According to a study conducted at San Francisco State Univeristy, the things you own can’t make you as happy as the things you do.
One reason is adaptation: we adapt to all things material in our lives in a matter of weeks, no matter how infatuated we were with the much-coveted possession the day we got it. Another is that experience, unlike possession, generally involves other people, and fosters or strengthens relationships that are more edifying over time than owning something.
Here’s a snippet from CNN’s coverage of the study:
The study looked at 154 people enrolled at San Francisco State University, with an average age of about 25. Participants answered questions about a recent purchase — either material or experiential — they personally made in the last three months with the intention of making themselves happy. While most people were generally happy with the purchase regardless of what it was, those who wrote about experiences tended to show a higher satisfaction at the time and after the experience had passed.
The most striking difference was in how participants said others around them reacted to either the purchased object or experience. Experiences led to more happiness in others than purchases did. A sense of relatedness to others — getting closer to friends and family — may be one of the reasons why experiences generate more happiness.
This study backs up an earlier one (To Do or to Have: That is the Question – available in full as PDF), which also found that not only are people happier experiencing than possessing, but they are also happier having the experience of thinking about possessing something than actually getting it.
Understanding that bit of knowledge about ourselves goes a long way toward explaining how advertising works. It’s largely about making the anticipation of buying something a fantastic experience. You can see yourself driving the car and it feels great. It’s a tremendous experience simply envisioning how wonderful it will be to own it. Then, when you do own it, that experience fades and you begin the process of adapting to the new material possession the way you do with every other possession in your life. This happens in six to eight weeks–three months tops–the research tells us.
The twist on all of this is that enabling someone else to own something (commonly known as giving) is also an experience, and typically a good one — in fact, it may very well be more happiness-inspiring over time than the thing you’re giving will be to the recipient. So the old adage, tis better to give than receive, may not just be good folk wisdom, but not a bad scientific observation as well.