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Experiences? Great. But sometimes, we need stuff

Kelly Dilworth

Happiness researchers frequently suggest that if you want to get more satisfaction from your purchases, you should spend your money on experiences instead of stuff. Research shows that experiential purchases tend to make people happier over the long run, and some research has suggested that clearing clutter and embracing a less materialistic lifestyle also may boost your mood.

Consumers have gotten the message. According to the market research firm, Mintel Comperemedia, U.S. consumers are spending more of their money on experiential purchases, such as vacations and dining out, and less on material goods. Meanwhile, books that tout domestic simplicity — such as Marie Kondo’s mega hit, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” — dominate best-seller lists as growing numbers of people try to squeeze more value out of their lives from less.

But as the oft-repeated advice to spend money on experiences instead of things calcifies into “conventional wisdom,” some writers are pushing back against the notion that pricey one-of-a-kind experiences trump material comforts.

“The superiority of our experiences has become our era’s reigning banality,” writes Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the New Republic. Minimalists claim that ridding yourself of excess stuff will give you more time and energy to focus on nourishing experiences and relationships, and it might even make you more productive. But, “there’s nothing magical about favoring experiences over things,” writes Bovy. “And there’s something subtly sexist about the refrain — especially in cases where the ‘stuff’ is still plenty present, but is being dealt with by the women in a man’s life.”

According to Bovy, “anti-stuff” advocates distort the movement’s message by celebrating travel, adventure and bare-bones homes without acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work and material things that often make those experiences possible. Bovy also argues that minimalism’s focus on traditionally masculine experiences dismisses women who would rather spend their money on “stuff.”

Similarly, Elissa Strauss writes in Slate that stuff gets short shrift in today’s culture, but material objects — such as dishwashers and sofas — make life easier and more comfortable, giving us the time and energy we need to focus on the experiences and relationships that matter most to us.

“I fell victim to the experiences-over-stuff paradigm in my early teens and spent much of my 20s trying to live up to Thoreauvian and Kerouacian notions of self-actualization. I’m now, at 36, about eight years into the ‘stuff’ phase of my life (mortgage, husband, kid) and I have learned far more about myself during this period than I ever did while sojourning around the globe,” writes Strauss. “Domestic stuff — our couch, our dining table, the bathtub, the dishwasher — don’t just serve as the backdrop to my life; they are the tools we use while engaging with one another and ourselves.”

Now, researchers are finding that material objects may also serve another purpose: They give us short bursts of momentary happiness each time we use or interact with them.

In a November 2015 study published in the journal “Society for Personality and Social Psychology,” University of British Columbia researchers found that material purchases are rarely as joyful or exciting as experiential purchases, but they often provide more frequent moments of happiness. When you buy something that makes you feel good when you look at or use it, you’re likely to feel spurts of contentment more often than if you spent that money on an experience — especially if you use it relatively frequently.

That doesn’t mean you should start spending all your money on stuff instead of experiences. Research shows that experiential purchases are still a powerful tool for boosting your mood and may provide a deeper, longer-lasting feeling of satisfaction. But you shouldn’t feel bad about saving up a healthy down payment for house, either. As long as don’t spend more than you can afford, shopping intentionally can also be a powerful mood booster.

Instead of focusing only on experiences or just on material things, researchers recommend that you think about what specific kinds of happiness you’re reaching for when considering how to get more satisfaction from your spending.

“Consider a holiday shopper deciding between tickets to a concert or a new couch in the living room,” said study co-author Aaron Weidman in a news release. “The concert will provide an intense thrill for one spectacular night, but then it will end, and will no longer provide momentary happiness, aside from being a happy memory. In contrast, the new couch will never provide a thrilling moment to match the concert, but will keep the owner snug and comfortable each day throughout the winter months.”

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