09/03/2014 08:32 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2014

More Evidence Happiness Doesn't Come From Buying New Things


News stories about Black Friday shopping violence are depressingly similar, and would be beyond belief save the fact that most are accompanied by security camera footage of the stampedes, fist fights, property damage and riots that erupt once shoppers rush into a store.

Compelling new research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that there's actually something intrinsically unpleasant about anticipating the purchase of a material good, which may in fact be putting shoppers on edge and helping to create the conditions for such violence.

The researchers arrived at the finding after analyzing 149 recent news articles about people waiting in long lines to purchase something. The newsworthy event of the articles seemed to fall into two categories: charming, happy stories about queuers breaking into song or playing games, or disturbing reports about violence. The negative stories more highly correlated with shoppers waiting to buy material goods, while the positive ones tended to be about people waiting for an experience, like a concert or a food truck.

"Judging by the newspaper accounts, what we found was that people were in better moods and were better behaved when they were waiting for an experience rather than waiting for a possession,” said lead investigator Tom Gilovich in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, "whereas [waiting for material goods] is tinged with a little bit of impatience and has more of an unpleasant edge to it."

The media analysis was one of four studies that Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, conducted to explore the different kinds of happiness we get from material goods versus experiences. Because Gilovich's past studies have shown that people enjoy a deeper, longer-lasting satisfaction from experiences than from material goods, he wondered whether the same could be said for the anticipation of a purchase. What feels better: waiting to buy that plane ticket, or waiting to buy a computer?

"It was more pleasant to wait for an experience," Gilovich said, "whereas for material goods, we thought it might be a little bit like a kid waiting for Christmas ... like, 'come on! When's Christmas going to get here? I want my stuff!'"

In another study, Gilovich questioned 97 study participants about a type of purchase (either experiential or material) they anticipated making soon. Even though the costs of both kinds of purchases tended to be roughly the same, participants were more likely to describe their anticipation as "pleasant" and tinged with "excitement" when faced with the purchase of an experience as opposed to the purchase of a material good, which was characterized with less pleasure and more impatience than excitement.

In a third study, Gilovich's team texted 2,266 adults to ask if they were about to make a purchase in the near future (they had previously signed up to be part of the research). Again, those who said they were about to buy an experience were more likely to describe their anticipation as more pleasant and exciting, and they also happened to just be generally happier than those who were about to purchase material goods.

The business implications for corporations are fairly obvious, explained Gilovich -- either widen your offering of experiences, or emphasize experiential angles to the products you're selling. But he said he was more interested in how public policy, especially urban planning, could benefit from his findings.

"We might all be better off if we spent more money on experiential things than material things, and if that's true for individuals, it has to be true for society," Gilovich said. "I'd like to see communities commit themselves more to an experiential infrastructure, and attend to hiking trails and bike paths, just as we attend to roads for automobiles."

"You can't take hikes and go bike riding and go to the beach if there aren't beaches and parks and bike trails," Gilovich continued. "Are we adequately protecting them, funding them and making it easy for people to be there, or, in this world of more and more user fees, are we pricing people out of that market?"

In other words, investing in opportunities for experiences is an investment in a community's happiness. Gilovich praised Vancouver and Copenhagen in particular as two cities that are proactively investing in what he called, "experiential infrastructure" -- higher density living with less commuting, more public space and less suburban sprawl.

"Think of all of this as different strands coming together to increase overall societal well-being," he said.