The Halcyon Days of Youth: a Phenomenological Account of Experiences and Feelings Accompanying Spring Break on the Beach

Laura A. Williams, Louisiana State University
Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University
ABSTRACT - Hedonic consumption and self-gifts are both fields of consumer research which call for exploratory investigation. This study provides phenomenological insight into hedonic experiences as a form of self-gifts in the highly social context of Spring Break trips to the beach. Content and interpretive analyses found support for three dimensions of self-gifts: social-self, specialness, and exchange. Experiences of gregariousness, bonding, hedonism, play, and shopping subsist within these dimensions. In addition, strong feelings of freedom, exhilaration and relaxation accompany these experiences, while feelings of delight, melancholy, exhaustion, remorse and closeness follow. Aspects related to self-gifts and hedonic consumption are discussed and future research areas are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Laura A. Williams and Alvin C. Burns (1994) ,"The Halcyon Days of Youth: a Phenomenological Account of Experiences and Feelings Accompanying Spring Break on the Beach", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 98-103.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 98-103


Laura A. Williams, Louisiana State University

Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University


Hedonic consumption and self-gifts are both fields of consumer research which call for exploratory investigation. This study provides phenomenological insight into hedonic experiences as a form of self-gifts in the highly social context of Spring Break trips to the beach. Content and interpretive analyses found support for three dimensions of self-gifts: social-self, specialness, and exchange. Experiences of gregariousness, bonding, hedonism, play, and shopping subsist within these dimensions. In addition, strong feelings of freedom, exhilaration and relaxation accompany these experiences, while feelings of delight, melancholy, exhaustion, remorse and closeness follow. Aspects related to self-gifts and hedonic consumption are discussed and future research areas are suggested.


"One thing that I'll always remember is waking up at 7am to the sound of the blender. Every morning, one of my friends who is a morning person would wake up early and have daiquiris ready for all of us by 7:30 am." (f, 20)

Approximately 10 years ago, consumer researchers were introduced to qualities inherent in experiential consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). Among other factors, experiential consumption is characterized by leisure time usage, hedonic response to surroundings, play activities, and heightened feelings, all of which result in fun, enjoyment and pleasure. In other words, experiential consumption transpires in a phenomenological setting where individuals are affected by distinct outcomes of consuming rather than buying (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). In accordance with Holbrook and Hirschman's suggestion that hedonic consumption, play and feelings afford a rich texture for the description of experiential consumption situations, we report a study couched in a fertile experiential setting, imbued with excessive and self-indulgent behaviors and geared toward fun and pleasure where there is strong social support for such excesses. It is also a situation where participants, because of their immoderation, undergo profound emotional experiences which are translated into strong personal feelings.

Relatively few studies have been devoted to understanding experiential and/or hedonic consumption. Consequently, our attempt is an exploratory venture utilizing the phenomenological research method of critical incidents. Against this backdrop, our purposes for this study were five-fold. First, we sought to investigate hedonic consumption in a highly social setting. Second, we set out to test the efficacy of self-gift themes as a typology for describing this consumption context. Next, we endeavored to expand the typology to include feelings, and, fourth, we wished to determine relationships between experiences and feelings. Last, we hoped to explore the presence of individual differences in this consumption experience/feelings framework.


Hedonic consumption is largely experiential (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992). It is characterized by multisensory input, emotional arousal as the major motivation for consumption, strong emphasis on the pleasure principle, and consuming behavior as opposed to buying behavior. An area of phenomenological research which has discovered widespread presence of hedonic consumption is self-gifts, or instances of self-directed consumption where a person buys something for him/her-self. Mick and DeMoss (1990a, 1990b) have investigated instances of self-gifts and found them to coexist in three dimensions. One dimension involves self-communication where the gift serves to symbolically enhance self-concept, self-esteem, or otherwise strengthen one's identity. A second theme involves exchange whereby consumers adhere to self-contracts, and the purchase of a gift is a self-reward, perhaps for reaching a milestone. The third dimension is entitled specialness and concerns uncommon consumption related to escape, discovery, or achieving perfection. Mick and DeMoss (1990b) have further defined self-gifts as: (1) personally symbolic self-communication through (2) special indulgences that tend to be (3) premeditated and (4) highly context bound. This definition signals that self-gift feelings are saturated with hedonics, and in fact, Mick and DeMoss (1990b) conclude that self-gifts are a pregnant domain within which to study hedonic consumption.


Self-communication is complicated by the existence of multiple selves. That is, it is believed that a person is made up of a multiplicity of selves, with certain selves relevant under specific circumstances. For example, Belk (1984) notes at least four selves as: individual, family, community, and group. Although Belk (1988) speaks largely of possessions as manifestations and extensions of the self, it seems reasonable to expand his claim to include experiential consumption. Thus, experiences reflect and serve to define the individual as to some relevant self. Our first task, then, involved identifying which self is relevant to hedonic consumption in a social context. Accordingly, our focus fell on the social-self, or that part of oneself that is displayed to others. Stated differently, we would expect socially shared experiential consumption to be symbolic communication expressing or otherwise shaping facets of the social-self.


Hedonic consumption and the phenomenology of self-gifts were explored in the context of a Spring Break trip to the beach. For the purposes of this study, Spring Break is a social context defined as a set of experiences that extends over a specific period of time. Since homogenous samples facilitate the identification of themes in exploratory research (Calder 1977), a convenience sample of undergraduate students at a large Southern university was used as informants in this study.

A preliminary questionnaire was administered to 67 undergraduate students to determine if a Spring Break trip depicted an incidence relevant to the study of hedonic consumption and self-gifts. Respondents were asked to recall and describe a Spring Break trip in detail. Their descriptions were to include where they went, who they went with, who paid for the trip, and their motivations for taking the trip. Forty-seven students took trips to destinations other than home, thirty-two of which paid for most or all of the expenses of the trip. In addition, all students taking Spring Break trips to the beach described partaking in some form of hedonic consumption. Therefore, the preliminary investigation suggested that Spring Break was a viable context for the study of hedonic consumption and self-gifts.

A critical incidence technique was used to solicit the recall of students' most memorable Spring Break trip (see Mick and DeMoss 1990). Student informants were asked to describe in detail (including specific experiences related to where, when, who, how, and why) their most memorable Spring Break trip. They were given a page and a half to write their descriptions. Informants were then asked to describe their feelings during and after the trip. Next, informants were asked to specify the year the trip was taken, the percentage of the trip that they financed out of their own funds, how long (in number of days) the trip lasted and the length of time spent planning the trip. In addition, a series of direct questions measured the degree to which students felt their Spring Break trip was a self-gift. Finally, informants indicated their gender, age, enrollment classification, and employment status.


Informant Profile

A total of 43 usable descriptions were obtained. The reduced sample consisted of students who went on a Spring Break trip to the beach and who classified the trip as a self-gift. Twenty males and twenty-three females ranging in age from 20 to 33 were the informants. All informants described a Spring Break trip to the beach which lasted from 3 to 9 days and cost an average of $300. Seventy percent of the informants paid for most of the expenses out of their own funds, and 88% of the respondents planned their trip an average of 4 to 8 weeks ahead of time.

When asked what best described their Spring Break trip, 49% of the informants felt that Spring Break was a way to escape and discover new and exciting things, and 40% felt that Spring Break was a deserving reward for their work and sacrifices leading up to it. Informants overwhelmingly indicated that their trip included self indulgent activities (91%). In addition, most felt that Spring Break trips similar to theirs are mainly for college students. Eight-four percent of the informants felt that all college students should have at least one Spring Break trip similar to the one they described, but only 12% felt that Spring Break helped them identify with their fellow college students. The fact that most informants felt that all students should have a Spring Break like theirs, while very few felt that it helped them to identify with college students, lent credence to our argument that social-self communication is functioning. Group affiliation was not a prime motivation for our informants, however the social context did seem to be an integral component.

Content Analysis and Tabulations

Content analysis was conducted by coding the experiences and feelings described by students. The authors independently reviewed the questionnaires and compiled lists of mentioned experiences and feelings. They then jointly agreed on a categorization scheme of the predominant experiences and feelings. Definitions of the resulting experiences, concurrent feelings and reflective feelings are listed in Table 1. Experiences are the activities that informants participated in during the Spring Break trip. Concurrent feeling are the emotions that informants felt while on their Spring Break trip, and reflective feelings are the emotions they felt after returning from their Spring Break trip.

Once the experience and feelings categories were agreed upon, the authors jointly judged the descriptions for evidence of the themes. Two PhD students served as independent judges for 25% of the descriptions. Overall interjudge reliability (Perreault and Leigh 1989) for the two PhD students was .79 (.89 for experiences, .75 for concurrent feelings, and .73 for reflective feelings). Averaged with the authors, interjudge reliability for experiences (.82), concurrent feelings (.73), and reflective feelings (.75) equaled .76. All of the above reliabilities meet the acceptability requirement for interjudge reliability in content analyses (Kassarjian 1977).

The frequencies and associated percentages of the reported occurrence of experiences, concurrent feelings, and reflective feelings are listed in Table 2. On average, informants reported 3.3 of the 5 experiences, 2.3 of the 7 concurrent feelings, and 1.5 of the 7 reflective feelings.

Experience Themes

Since all respondents identified their Spring Break trip as a self gift, Mick and DeMoss's (1990b) self-gift typology was applied with the modification of a social-self communication dimension. Two experiences were found to depict social-self communication: bonding and gregariousness. Bonding experiences are those activities that are conducted with close friends. Bonding activities were very evident in informants' descriptions; for example, practically all informants went on the trip with friends. To illustrate, one respondent indicated, "My most vivid memory of this week was when all six of us were on the beach one night talking. We just sat around for hours and talked." (f, 22) The second experience, gregariousness, describes activities that involve social interactions with strangers, or people other than informants' close friends. Gregariousness was identified in over one-half of the written descriptions. Informants wrote about various opportunities to meet others.

"My favorite part were the nights, because there was no scorching sun, but lots of girls (and guys) on the beach having parties. We met tons of girls; I met more girls this Spring Break than I ever can recall." (m, 21)

The specialness dimension is described by Mick and DeMoss (1990b) as the extra meaningful and potentially sacred aspects of a self-gift. In this study, specialness was represented by the experience of hedonism. Hedonism in a social context describes activities done in excess, or extraordinary self indulgences. Informants gave very detailed descriptions of incidents of hedonism which included sunbathing for hours, consuming immense amounts of alcohol, avoiding sleep, and participating in excessive behaviors. The following informants' descriptions attest to hedonism.

"One of the most memorable times during the trip was when my friend had too much to drink and he passed out in our room. A bunch of us got together and picked him up and carried him about a 100 yards to the girls room that we just met that day. All of the girls were sleeping, so we put him in the living room right next to two girls. We left but decided that wasn't enough, so we went back in and stripped him of his clothes. He didn't wake up until the next morning. When he did, he had about 8 girls staring at him." (m, 22)

"Our greatest accomplishment was a beer drinking record. Dusty, Harry, Jim, Rene, Tom, Eric, and I guzzled a total of 75 beers in 53 minutes - then passed out for the rest of the day." (m, 21)

Finally, the third dimension of self-gifts is exchange (Mick and DeMoss 1990b). Exchange is represented in this study by two experiences: playing and shopping. Incidences of play were found in over one-half of the written descriptions. Informants talked of participating in numerous beach and water sports including volleyball, football, frisbee, sailing, snorkeling, and bungi jumping. Shopping activities were much less prevalent, accounting for only about one out of five cases. Most shopping experiences revolved around mall shopping. One informant wrote,

"The highlight of the break was a shopping trip to the outlet mall...about 40 minutes away. It was especially exciting for me because they had a particular store...that I love (but usually have to scrape savings to buy anything). Everything was on sale, so I bought up big and saved heaps. I was in the store for about 3 hours." (f, 22)



Concurrent Feelings

Having mapped the experiences into the self-gift dimensions, we next turned to analysis of the feelings informants said accompanied these experiences. As seen in Table 2, a feeling of being unfettered, that is, a feeling of freedom from restraints and restrictions was noted in about 6 out of 10 cases. In the words of two informants,

"It is a blast to be able to go away from home without anyone telling you what to do or having any obligations for a week straight. It was one of the best feelings of freedom a human being could probably ever experience." (m, 23)

"I felt like there was no tomorrow. We drank and ate what ever we wanted, stayed out all night, slept on the beach during the day. I felt crazy, as if there were no limits." (f, 21)



At the same time about one half of our informants recalled a feeling of being free of cares and everyday worries during their Spring Break. For example, one informant wrote, "I I didn't have a care in the world. There was nothing to do except drink and hang out." (m, 22) There is the possibility that being unfettered and being carefree really tap the same feeling. That is, while our judges could distinguish informants' words and classify them into these two categories reliably, it is conceivable that the semantic differences are artifacts, and a feeling of freedom (from restrictions and cares) is the underlying emotional response. When we combined the unfettered and carefree feelings categories into one, 77% of our informants experienced the feeling of freedom, the predominant concurrent feeling.

A separate feeling of exhilaration was observed. About one half (49%) of our informants indicated that they felt elated, thrilled, overjoyed, or otherwise extremely happy during their Spring Break. In this informant's words, "I felt exhilarated. I was having a wonderful time. It was wild to see all the different, shocking events that would take place." (m, 21) In contrast, informants also noted a relaxed feeling. About one out of three commented on the sensation of relaxation. For example, one informant wrote, "We had so much fun just relaxing and 'goofing off'." (f, 22) The remaining concurrent feelings themes (irresponsibility, camaraderie, and energy) were found to be in low incidence. That is, while they were present, they were experienced by only a few informants, and did not constitute primary feelings themes.

Reflective Feelings

Reflective feelings revealed an interesting profile. Informants indicated primary reflective feelings of delight and melancholy. Forty percent indicated a delightful feeling of happiness, satisfaction and/or fulfillment after their Spring Break. "I felt very happy. It was the most fun that I ever had up to that point." (m, 21) About one-third reported lament at having to "return to the real world;" they were melancholic about "leaving paradise". One informant described his feelings, "I felt sad because I didn't want to leave. I was with my closest friends and I wish we could've stayed forever." (f, 22) Also, about 1 out of 4 recounted feelings of extreme physical exhaustion as a result of their nonstop activities and probably due to a lack of sleeping accommodations. "I felt very worn out and ready to leave the beach. I was out of money and in need of a good nights' sleep." (m, 22) Occasionally, informants told of 4, 8, 12 or even 20 sharing the same motel room; others told of sleeping in cars, in hotel patios, or on the beach.

"We partied til the sun came up, then we all played on the beach all day long. That night we still hadn't found a place to sleep so we crashed on the patio of a Days Inn Hotel. I believe the guys slept in the car. We repeated another day of fun in the sun the following day. The next morning the beach patrol ran us off the beach because we weren't supposed to be on the beach sleeping. So we drove home as the sun came up." (f, 22)

Two other reflective feelings warrant mention. First, a feeling of closeness to the friends who shared Spring Break experiences was noted by about 16 percent of our informants. "I felt closer to my friends and I felt nostalgic because I had a lot of fun memories to reflect upon." (f, 22) At the same time, 21 percent noted remorse in the form of guilty feelings or embarrassment at what they had done. "I felt terrible. Physically I was exhausted and sunburned. Emotionally, I was worried about my poor judgment and lack of morals during my break." (m, 21) However, both closeness and remorse may be under reported. Given our finding of very high incidence of bonding experiences, the low closeness feeling seems anomalous. This feeling may be too personal to have been elicited by the relatively impersonal methodology. Similarly, it seems reasonable to assume that informants would refrain from telling about guilt or embarrassment for the same reason.

Interestingly, reflective feelings of renewal or change were almost nonexistent. Our informants generally did not indicate that they felt rejuvenated or recharged, and only in rare instances did they feel that the experiences had profound effects on their lives, beliefs, or cognitions.

Relationships between Experiences and Feelings

Our attention next turned to seeming connections between Spring Break experiences, concurrent feelings and reflective feelings. A series of cross-tabulations was run to determine associations: (1) within and (2) between experiences, concurrent feelings and reflective feelings. The within analyses were aimed at refining our dimensions, while the between analyses were intended to further our understanding of the dynamics under study. In these analyses, we omitted the low incidence feelings of irresponsibility, energy, renewal, and change. In all Chi Square tests, any p value of .10 or less was considered significant due to the exploratory nature of our study and the small sample size.

Within experiences, bonding and gregariousness were found to be positively associated (p < .05), and this result corroborated our claim that both reflect social-self communication. At the same time, play and shopping were highly associated (p < .01), supporting Hirschman and Holbrook's (1982) point that the personal resource of time is part of the exchange process in experiential consumption. The only within-feelings association found was between relaxation and camaraderie (p < .10), but we chose to retain these feelings as separate categories in the absence of theoretical support for combining them.

We found that the social-self communication dimension of self-gifts (both bonding and gregariousness) was accompanied with feelings of being unfettered or free from constraints and restrictions (p < .05). This concurrent feeling of freedom was associated with reflective feelings of melancholy and closeness to friends (p < .01 and p < .05, respectively).

On the other hand, the exchange aspect of self-gifts (play) was accompanied by a feeling of exhilaration (p < .10). Interestingly, the exchange dimension (play and shopping) was negatively associated with the reflective feeling of remorse (p < .05). That is, informants who participated in self-gift exchange did not feel guilty or embarrassed about their behavior. Exchange (play) was also associated with the reflective feeling of closeness to one's friends (p < .10). In addition, the reflective feeling of closeness was positively associated with the concurrent feeling of camaraderie (p < .05).

Hedonism, or the specialness dimension of self-gift giving, demonstrated no systematic association with specific concurrent or reflective feelings. However, this result was to be expected given that almost all informants reported hedonic experiences.

Individual Differences

Our last set of analyses concerned exploring possible individual differences in experiences or either of the two sets of feelings. We investigated differences by gender and found that females shopped more than males. Thus, experiences and feelings differed very little by gender.

Discussion: Getting What I Deserve and Unfettering My Social-self

"I stayed drunk for 4 days, barely ate, and enjoyed a lot of company from people all over the country." (m, 21)

We need not go into great detail as to what goes on during Spring Break on the beach. The nonstop parties at Daytona Beach, South Padre Island, Ft. Walton Beach, and elsewhere are an integral part of college student folklore. (One of our informants, not used in the study, told us that his fraternity created its own beach and had a week-long party in a city far distant from any ocean or gulf beach. Interestingly, his description was identical to those informants we analyzed.)

However, it is evident to us that, on one plane of self-gift giving, Spring Break serves an important role of reward to oneself for hard work and effort. Play and shopping serve as compensation for the sacrifices students believe they have made. These activities, especially play, are accompanied with strong feelings of exhilaration. When Spring Break is over, college students have no guilt attached to these indulgences. In fact, despite being physically drained, they regret that the break could not go on, and they retain warm feelings of delight and closeness. It appears that satisfactory repayment has been received.

On another level, Spring Break is blatantly hedonic, as virtually all informants narrate stories of extreme self-indulgences ranging from laying on the beach all day to drinking all night. But to us, the interesting phenomenon is not hedonism per se. Rather, it is the social context which allows the social-self almost complete freedom to express itself. We would argue that the social context liberates the social-self. In fact, the strong norm of Spring Break is to act in an unconstrained manner. The experiences of bonding and gregariousness occur solely in the context of peers. There are no parents, teachers, or authority figures to impose judgment or serve as reminders of the restrictions that these students have had to endure as they strive to express their "selves" in "acceptable" ways. When freed of these conventions and in the safe company of peers, expression of the social-self is unfettered, and the experience of social-self communication is a delightful memory even though it may later be accompanied by some guilt or embarrassment.

On the last plane of interpretation, Spring Break has earmarks of sacredness (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Students participate in a ritual pilgrimage to a location befitting their excesses. Such extravagance may come only once per year and can only be experienced by students. Informants often commented that a Spring Break trip to the beach is sacred because it is a "one time thing". So it is understandable that they look back on the experience with melancholic feelings, knowing that the context is unique, short-lived, and will probably happen only once in their lives.


Hedonic consumption and self-gifts are both fields of consumer research which call for exploratory investigation. Our study provides phenomenological insight into hedonic experiences as a form of self-gifts in the highly social context of Spring Break trips. Content and interpretive analyses found support for Mick and DeMoss's (1990b) three dimensions of self-gifts. Along with the experiences associated with these three dimensions, a host of feelings themes emerged to describe the consequences of this hedonic gift-giving context. Associations within experience themes and among experiences, concurrent feelings, and reflective feelings reveal their dynamics at least provisionally. Consequently, we offer a tentative interpretative analysis of hedonic experiences and feelings.

We are aware of the sample size, sample representativeness and generalizability limitations of our exploratory study. In addition, we acknowledge the potential limitation of social response bias associated with informants' reports of sexual experiences. Finally, future research in this area should expand the methodology to include informant interviews and participant observation.

This study highlights the need to investigate self-gift behavior in contexts other than product consumption. Our evidence suggests that a variety of hedonic consumption experiences may also be considered self-gifts. Additional exploratory and descriptive research is necessary to extend these findings and to test our conclusions.


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