Living Athe Good Life@: the Hedonic Superiority of Experiential Over Material Purchases

Leaf Van Boven, University of British Columbia
[ to cite ]:
Leaf Van Boven (2002) ,"Living Athe Good Life@: the Hedonic Superiority of Experiential Over Material Purchases", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 444-445.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 444-445

LIVING "THE GOOD LIFE": THE HEDONIC SUPERIORITY OF EXPERIENTIAL OVER MATERIAL PURCHASES

Leaf Van Boven, University of British Columbia

Pleasure spendingCspending money with the intention of experiencing happiness and pleasureCis an important part of everyday consumer life. The question addressed in the present research is whether some pleasure spending strategies are more successful than others. The answer is important to the extent that marketers, policy makers, and social scientists seek greater understanding of the causal relationship between consumption and happiness.

The thesis examined in this article is that experiential purchases are hedonically superior to material purchases. Spending money in pursuit of life experiences makes consumers happier than spending money in pursuit of material things. "The good life," in others words, is better lived by doing things by having things.

The current research extends prior investigations, which have documented a negative association between materialism and happiness (Belk, 1984, 1985; Kasser & Ryan, 1993; Richins & Dawson, 1992), in two ways. First, whereas earlier investigations compared the happiness of materialistic and non-materialistic people, the present research compares the happiness afforded by experiential and material purchases to people generally. Second, whereas earlier investigations were correlational and could not speak to the causal relationship between materialism and happiness, the present research examines whether experiential purchases cause greater happiness than material purchases.

It should be noted that the distinction between experiential and material purchases is somewhat vague, and readers may be able to think of exceptions ("What about my bike?"). In the present studies, consumers are asked to draw a distinction between experiential and material purchases based on their primary intentions regarding the purchases. The data suggest that this simple distinction, vague thought it may be, is readily recognized and widely shared and is therefore likely to be meaningful to consumers in everyday life.

In the Choice Survey, respondents were asked to compare experiential and material purchases that they had made during their lifetime and that made them happy. Across several items, respondents indicated that their experiential purchases made them happier than their material purchases. They also indicated that their material purchases were a better value than their material purchases. For example, they said that experiential purchases were "money better spent" than material purchases.

In the Lifetime Purchases Survey, respondents were asked to describe and evaluate an experiential purchase and a material purchases that they had made during their lifetime and that had made them happy. Corroborating the results of the Choice Survey, respondents indicated that their experiential purchases made them happier than their material purchases. As well, analysis of respondents’ purchase descriptions revealed substantial agreement regarding which purchases were experiential and which were material, indicating that consumers readily recognize the distinction between experiential and material purchases.

In the Recent Purchases Survey, respondents were asked to describe and evaluate purchases they had been happy with that had been made by them or for them during the preceding month. In keeping with the results of the preceding surveys, respondents indicated that their recently made experiential purchases made them happier than their recently made experiential purchases. Their purchase descriptions, as in the Lifetime Purchases Survey, also revealed substantial agreement regarding which purchases are experiential and which are material.

The final study, the Mood Study, was conducted to offer more indirect measures of the degree to which experiential purchases and material purchases affect consumers’ happiness. Participants were asked in a preliminary session to write a description of either an experiential purchase or a material purchase that they were happy with. They were asked in a second session to read and contemplate their description. Participants’ moods were measured in the first session before they knew to which condition they were assigned and in the second session after they evaluated their purchase. Consistent with the respondents’ reports in the three surveys, participants who thought about their experiential purchase were placed in a relatively better mood than participants who thought about their material purchase.

Why are experiential purchases hedonically superior to experiential purchases? Three psychological processes may conspire to make experiential purchases hedonically superior to material purchases. First, experiences may contribute more to favorable self-perceptions than material things. Because people’s purchases can say a lot about "who they are" and since there is a positive stereotype of "experiential" people (and a negative stereotype of "materialistic" people), experiential purchases may contribute more to positive self-perceptions. Second, experiential purchases may have greater "social value" than material purchases because, for one, they are simply more likely to involve other people. Furthermore, because they are more apt to follow a typical narrative structure, with a beginning, middle, and end, both listeners and storytellers may enjoy conversing about experiences more than things. Finally, experiential purchases may be more open than material purchases to positive distortions in memory over time. These "rosy views" may stem from experiential purchases’ greater ability to be construed at higher, more favorable levels with the passage of time. Preliminary data from the three surveys and from studies I report elsewhere provide evidence for each of these mechanisms.

Consumer behavior research, at its very best, should both enrich our understanding of how and why consumers behave the way they do, as well as suggest means of improving consumer welfare. The present research attempts to do both. Three surveys and one study indicate that, for a variety of reasons, experiential purchases make consumers happier than material purchases. These results suggest a simple prescription for advancing happiness: Resources should be allocated more toward the acquisition of life experiences than toward the acquisition of material things.

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