How Material & Experiential Gifts Spread Different Flavors of Happiness

When shopping this winter season, either for the perfect gift for a special someone or a little treat for yourself, you might want to think about what kind of happiness you want to be spreading. New research published in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests that the choice between buying a material gift or an experiential gift can alter how the receiver of the gift experiences happiness.

Previously, research exploring the happiness associated with material purchases (e.g. the latest gadget, perfume or unsightly Christmas-themed jumpers) and experiential purchases (e.g. wine tasting, spa treatment or sports car driving experiences) focused on anticipatory forms of happiness (looking forward to a purchase) or afterglow happiness (looking back on a purchase).

The study in question focused on how people felt in the moment with their specific purchase. The researchers assessed the real-time, momentary happiness people get from consuming a material or experiential purchase, by recording their thoughts up to five times per day for two week, as well as one month after their purchases.

The results revealed that material and experiential purchases bring happiness in two distinct flavors:

Material purchases bring repeated doses of happiness over time in the weeks after they are bought, whereas experiential purchases offer a more intense but fleeting dose of happiness. Additionally, when people looked back on their purchases 6 weeks after Christmas, they felt more satisfaction about experiential purchases.

In other words, if you want to maximize the intensity of the momentary happiness someone gets from their gift, while also getting a good dose of afterglow happiness when reminiscing, life experiences are clearly the best investment. However, material gifts offer the advantage of providing more frequent bouts of momentary happiness in the weeks after they are received.

So the choice between material or experiential gift giving depends on if you want to exhilarate your friends and family with one intense shot of happiness that brings memorable joy, or provide a more subtle and frequent form of happiness that will endure for many weeks or even months.

The choice is yours!


Weidman, A., & Dunn, E. (2015). The Unsung Benefits of Material Things: Material Purchases Provide More Frequent Momentary Happiness Than Experiential Purchases Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550615619761

Dunn, E., & Weidman, A. (2015). Building a science of spending: Lessons from the past and directions for the future Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25 (1), 172-178 DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2014.08.003

Image via robert cicchetti / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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