SCIENCE
12/22/2015 06:35 pm ET

Material Gifts Can Make Us Happier Than You Might Think, Study Finds

Concert tickets and weekend getaways are great, but a new study says physical gifts provide a different kind of joy.
Scientists reveal the different benefits of giving a material gift versus the gift of an experience.
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Scientists reveal the different benefits of giving a material gift versus the gift of an experience.

Scientists have long known that the gift of a life experience -- whether it's tickets to the big game or a surprise vacation -- is likely to leave us feeling more satisfied than a material item would. But a new study suggests that we may be underestimating the benefits of material gifts.

Receiving material objects makes us happy in a different way, according to Aaron Weidman, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. Such gifts may provide us with more frequent moments of satisfaction because we can use them multiple times. 

"I wasn’t surprised at our finding that material purchases were the ones that continued to provide momentary happiness repeatedly over time, whereas experiences tend to provide one burst of intense happiness, followed by pleasant memories," Weidman said.

To reach this conclusion, Weidman and Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, his adviser and an associate professor at UBC, conducted two experiments. In the first one, 67 shoppers were assigned to spend $20 on either a material or experiential purchase and record how happy they felt about the purchase every day for two weeks. 

In the second experiment, 81 participants were asked to record their feelings about a material or an experiential gift they received last Christmas. They logged their thoughts three to five times per day over the course of two weeks.

Based on the responses, Weidman and Dunn concluded that material items and special experiences deliver joy in "two distinct flavors" -- something interesting to keep in mind as we exchange gifts with loved ones this holiday season, Weidman said.

"If you want to provide one great experience, one great event or moment for someone, buy concert tickets or a short vacation or getaway," he said. "It would also provide very fond memories for quite some time ... On the other hand, if you want to get someone something that would repeatedly provide them with pleasure over time for an extended period of time, material purchases are the way to go."

In other words, to give someone a short-term burst of joy and good memories, give the gift of a treasured experience. To give someone repeated feelings of joy, give a material item. Happy holidays!

The study was published online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science on Nov. 30.

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