Stuff won’t make you happy, experiences will

A new study conducted at Cornell University and reported in the January 2010 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that experiences bring greater happiness and satisfaction than buying and owning possessions. From “The Relative Relativity of Material and Experiential Purchases“:

No matter which wristwatch one buys, even if it is entirely satisfactory, it can still be compared to one in a store display — encouraging counterfactual thoughts about what it would be like with their positions reversed. After returning from vacation, in contrast, it is not so easy to compare a hypothetical Vail ski run with the waves actually ridden in Fiji.

The study revealed that people often feel buyer’s remorse, stress, and a sense that they may not have purchased the best or right product after shopping. In contrast, after a vacation, hike, bike ride, or game of softball in the park, there are rarely negative feelings or associations with these experiences.

… knowing about the features available on other cell phones is likely to influence one’s satisfaction with one’s own phone more than knowing about the bungalows available on other tropical beaches is likely to influence one’s satisfaction with one’s own tropical bungalow.

One of the points that interested me most in the study was the conclusion that:

… satisfaction with material purchases tends to decrease over time, whereas satisfaction with experiential purchases tends to increase.

Over one’s lifetime, it is his or her experiences that are more valuable than any product ever owned or purchased.

If you’re worried that getting rid of clutter will have a negative impact on your life, this study shows that it’s not likely to happen. Clearing the clutter will make room for you to have more experiences, which will ultimately make you happier.

From many angles, the pursuit of experiences over possessions seems to be the firmer path to happiness.

The full study is available for free from the APA.

37 Comments for “Stuff won’t make you happy, experiences will”

  1. posted by Shane Marriott on

    I have been a long-time reader of Unclutterer but have yet to take the plunge and comment! Reading this post intrigued me as it was something I had determined myself last year whilst spring cleaning!

    Who needs research? Just clear out your junk!

  2. posted by Mike on

    I suspect this phenomenon is absolutely as genuine as the study suggests, and that it has the ancillary effect of driving consumerism in products that try to capture those experiences in a bottle – i.e. cameras, souvenirs, etc.

    Every time I look at the photos from my college-era ridiculous road trip through the western states, it’s like being there all over again with my homies, having the time of our lives. We shot a little bit of video, too, and it is also cherished now. As I was passing through, I bought a few caps and tee shirts. I know I could have obtained much cheaper ones at Walmart or wherever, but I don’t regret for an instant buying the ones I bought, because of the memories that are associated.

  3. posted by Shalin on

    …this makes me think of the many businessmen in Japan who have little charms on their cell phones. A friend of mine who just returned from Japan and I were talking about personal and professional culture there, specifically Tokyo. We concluded that basically, life moves at such a frenetic pace that people basically feel they need to buy “charm” (not charms, but charm).



  4. posted by Dawn F on

    I wonder if the average American consumer will ever “get” this idea – you don’t need stuff, people! Happy memories and experiences are the cherry on top of the ice cream.

    I wish more people would choose to devote their time, attention and energy wholeheartedly to their loved ones – children, family, friends, neighbors, pets, etc. – and less to stuff and junk and crap that fills up their homes and garages and storage units.

    Maybe devotion like that takes too much effort – it’s easier to go out and buy something to try to fulfill one’s life…

    Thank you, Unclutterer for sharing this information.

  5. posted by Shane Marriott on

    Apologies to anyone that clicked the link in my comment above, I had intended to link to the relevant post, not a search results page!

  6. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd on

    It occurred to me that experiences such as a hike, vacation, game and bike ride often involve participation with other people, whereas purchasing items is often a solitary act. I wonder if it’s involving other people in our life that makes an experience so much more enjoyable/memorable than a purchase.

  7. posted by Rae on

    When my father was dying and we were clearing out his very spare apartment, I got comments on how ‘sad’ it was that he didn’t accumulate anything in his life. Meanwhile, I was listening to his stories of travels and things he did and realised that the only thing we take with us when we die are our memories. A year and a half after he died, after selling or otherwise divesting myself of the bulk of my possessions, I hit the open road in an RV and have since spent 99% of my income on accumulating as many awesome memories as I can instead of trying to find contentment in a house full of stuff. A year and a half after that, I can say without a doubt that this study really is on to something.

  8. posted by Mary Anne in Kentucky on

    I’m the reverse: I’m usually satisfied with things (assuming I can find anything remotely like what I need, which is why I make most of my clothes!), but when I experience something I wonder before and after whether it was the best decision. Should I have taken the other road? Should I have spent the afternoon working in the garden instead of taking a walk? Should I have given up on the movie early instead of waiting to see how it turned out?
    Then, of course, there are books, which are things which contain experiences….

  9. posted by Haggie on

    That study should be printed and handed to everyone waiting in line at an Apple store…

  10. posted by Stevecrane on

    I’m in total agreement that experiences are far better than materialism.We’ve been lucky to have two dream holidays in three years and we’re still talking about our California/Nevada trip three years ago and the wonderful trip to Washington/New York and Boston holiday last year.They were expensive but the memories will last for ever.We’re already saving up for our next vacation across ‘the pond’. Great post Erin.

  11. posted by Ray on

    I read about this topic a while ago. I don’t recall if it was the same study. Anyway, the article I read said that if the experience turns out to be negative, there’s a larger negative impact than buyer’s remorse.

    That said, I’d still bank on happy experiences. At the very, least they don’t have to be managed.

    I got it into my head that every item you own has a shred of responsibility tied to it. It’s the responsibility to make use of it. Otherwise it becomes a bit of a liability (time and energy to store it, work around it, stress from buyer’s remorse, etc.).

    Experiences carry none of that baggage. And hopefully you can pick out the lessons in the negative experiences and file the rest of it in a mental garbage can.

    Stuff and experiences collide in physical media: books, music cd’s, dvds, video games. “Are you ever going to read/watch/play/listen to that again?” is a tough question.

  12. posted by debbie on

    My grandmother always told me there are no pockets in shrouds. I live by this. When I die I want my children to remember not for the third of house they sell but hey remember when mum took us to disneyland and how she was always giving us great life experiences.Life is short i want to be able to of value to all not have valuables for all.

  13. posted by Beth on

    For a long time, whenever asked what I want at any gift-giving occasion, I’ve always responded with some variant of “give me an experience/spend time with me”: movie or theatre tickets, dinner at an interesting new restaurant, a hiking date or day at a museum, a road trip…

    How people react to that request, I’ve found, is an interesting judge of character. Those who don’t get it, or think it’s a “oh, don’t get me anything” cop-out, or are made uncomfortable by the request (like my ex-husband!) I’ve become wary of over the years, while ever more deeply treasuring those who respond in the spirit in which it’s intended.

  14. posted by Mirella on

    Great post! Sometimes we do need to have ‘things’ to remember the experiences by though.. Or people who will listen to the same story over and over again so we don’t forget!

  15. posted by Bilbo on

    Hmm, I agree and disagree with this article. I’ve had a lot of experiences, and yet many of those experiences were in my eyes better classified as “stuff.” Expensive restaurants, shows, and vacations, and I would better classify these as “stuff.” I find that its less of whether its an item or an experience, but more what it means to you… -truly- means to you.

  16. posted by Lynne on

    My husband and I have long realised that birthday and Christmas presents are more appreciated if they are of the ‘experiential’ kind. We have enough stuff – let’s make life more interesting!

  17. posted by 00 Clutter on

    Are you telling me that if I buy all the stuff at James Bond Life Style .com, I still won’t be as cool as James Bond?

  18. posted by Another Deb on

    I have been a collector of experiences over the years. Do you think the popularity of the scrapbooking hobby says something about our consumerist methods of preserving experiences?

  19. posted by Daniel Ho on

    I’d offer a corollary.

    Even if experiences are more valued than stuff, it’s not either/or. The person who has lots of experiences AND stuff wins! And the person who winds up having neither experiences nor stuff is probably losing.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist!

  20. posted by Poorva on

    Oh, this is so true! I don’t even remember half the stuff I’ve bought/been given over the years, but the things I’ve done that brought me joy? As clear as ever.

    And @Haggie: I’ll gladly pay Apple’s prices for not having to be subjected to the Windoze experience any day…

  21. posted by Charles Allen on

    Great research, but you mention “..a vacation, hike, bike ride, or game of softball in the park..” I would argue there is stuff you’d like to have to make each of those things more enjoyable. Most notably the bicycle. You’d have a hard time enjoying a bike ride unless you bought borrowed or stole a bike! Then you run into the negative aspects of having (or not having) stuff.

  22. posted by Shalin on

    I’d imagine the travel industry will get in bed with the growing wellness industry to develop interesting “experiences”… Personally, I think there’s a market in “off the grid” vacations…



  23. posted by momof3 on

    Interesting study–going to read up on it. I am of the “one keepsake per trip per family member” mind set. It’s mostly t-shirts for the hubby and kids. I collect refrig. magnets: small and cheap and remind me/us of the places we have been. (outgrown t shirts are handed down so there goes the memory–but “that’s ok mom, you have the magnet!”)
    I have been watching all the TV shows about hoarding with great interest. I do see these mostly mentally unbalanced people holding items more dear than their own family members. Sad, very sad.
    Love my family, love the memories we have together, and look forward to many more as the year go by.

  24. posted by Al on

    I clicked your link for the “free” study from the APA. When I try to access the article I get a screen showing you have to purchase the article. How did you get it free?

  25. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Al — At some point this morning it went from free to $11.95. I don’t know if this is because we pushed so much traffic to the site that they saw a profit opportunity, or if it was always supposed to be $11.95 and there was some bug that let us get it for free temporarily. Many public libraries have accesses to databases that will have the article for free (Aladdin, JSTOR, etc.), so if you don’t want to pay the $12, I’d hit your library.

  26. posted by lola meyer on

    Trent has an excellent post on this subject over at
    titled Am I Unhappy?

  27. posted by Money Can't Buy Happiness, Study Says on

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  28. posted by mydivabydesign on

    Clearing out the clutter really does make room for new ideas and experiences. you also spend less time moving things from one place to another!

  29. posted by themusiclivez on

    @Ray – thank you for saying this:

    “I got it into my head that every item you own has a shred of responsibility tied to it. It’s the responsibility to make use of it. Otherwise it becomes a bit of a liability (time and energy to store it, work around it, stress from buyer’s remorse, etc.).”

    It is so true and exactly how I end up feeling!

  30. posted by Ulrich on

    Thank you for this great article. From experience – no pun intended 😉 – I have to agree. I’m in the middle of drastically uncluttering and I know that stuff isn’t everything in the world.

    However, sometimes stuff helps with the experiences. Without the RV (yes, it can be rented), you’re not having that road trip (or a different one). My professional ice cream maker is stuff, but – oh! – the experiences it’s let me have!

  31. posted by Ruben on

    I remember recently listening to a 1950’s recording of Fulton Sheen where he said that “the world has a philosophy of having, but what we really need is a philosophy of being.”

  32. posted by Proof on

    […] This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed. « 04-05-2010 […]

  33. posted by bbob on

    for many, the process of acquisition IS the experience!
    but now they have this thing still hanging around….

    So I wonder, mebbe if one is acquiring something in order to have an experience, THEN one needs to find a different experience that is not stuff-oriented.
    This is a different thing than acquiring something because it is truly needed or life enhancing.

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  35. posted by How to be organized on

    […] The emotional bond I think is the most difficult thing for most people to admit and incite change. But we have to realize that stuff isn’t what makes us happy, actually, stuff is what makes us unhappy. It’s experiences that make us happy. […]

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